Pre- Brexit : The Soft Joke Border


Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts. We are about to embark on the more dangerous aspects of linguistic feats : the joke - in a foreign language.

This is difficult, believe me. I had a go with my French in-laws - telling  what is known in the UK as "the wide-mouth frog" joke. You might know it. It's quite good. Anyway, it involves various questions to the frog (wide mouthed) by various animals. To my amazement I got away with it. There was polite laughter. The point though is that this is so difficult to do. Humour really does not translate. I have spent many times in France watching a French TV "comedy" show, with my relatives falling about with laughter, and me not getting any of it at all.

It is said that Americans don't get "irony" - a feature of our own humour. My limited knowledge says that the French (my French contacts anyway) find different things funny. This leads me on nicely to an experiment I carried out some years ago. Potentially this could have gone disastrously wrong. Yes, I put on a DVD of the great Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. I found one of the good bits where he is on top form discussing the "leesonce for zee minky" or "do you 'av a rhume". To my astonishment and relief, they all thought it very funny. So perhaps this very unscientific experiment proved that the French do not take themselves too seriously. Bien to that. 

However, I do find a lot of the jokes they like are a bit "banana skin" in style. You know, a bit obvious.

Not this one coming up though. I shall explain this totally, so that the brave amongst you might want to attempt the telling. This is a play on words - centering on the English word "enough". Imagine it said by a French person in a French accent. Now, "enough" when said in a French accent also sounds exactly like the French word "Hénaff".

If you know what this word is all about award yourself a few points. Hénaff is the world famous Brittany pâté made from pork. At risk of starting a revolution from across the Channel, I'd say it's a bit like SPAM. A famous brand of "cheap" food that has endured for centuries. Literally, actually, as the brand celebrated 100 years of existence in 2007. It comes in a very famous blue and yellow tin and is made in Brittany but exported worldwide.

Try a look at the Pâté Hénaff website. There you'll find pages of history, the healthy aspects of the product, the fan-club, and lists of all the many new products available (now sausages, pâté with Breton cider, with onions, etc. etc.). 

Briefly, if you're interested, the company started in 1907 for the preservation of peas and green beans. Then, the enterprising Monsieur Hénaff thought "what shall we do when the peas are not in season?" He then had the genius of thinking of making something from pork. The recipe is of course secret (aren't they all?). During the War the Germans took over the factory and had their HQ in the rather grand "pâté" château. Later, things stopped for a while and then a descendant of the original Hénaff family took up the reins again. The Hénaff name and products are famous throughout France.


Anyway, back to the joke, the story is about one of those Frenchmen who used to travel from Brittany to sell onions in the UK. This is how Brittany Ferries started - through the exporting of veg from Brittany. The so called "Onion Johnnies" would come over in their thousands once, selling the famous "rose onions" grown around Roscoff. These onions have their own French appellation, like wine, and must be grown in a certain way in certain areas of land. There's even a date, the 19th August, before which the onions cannot be sold. There's an Onion Museum in Roscoff I'll have you know.

So, the joke is that a Frenchman travels to England and knocks on doors trying to sell onions. He knocks on one door and a lady answers. "'Ello", he says, "would you like some onions?" "No thanks", she replies, "We have enough". This conversation is repeated at each house he visits. When he gets back to France he tells this to his friends in the café. He concludes, "This man Hénaff has got everything covered!"  And Hénaff is the name of a very popular brand of tinned meats in France. 

Get it? If not, you have to say it out loud. Now try it out - you'll get a lot of brownie points from the French community - believe me.

We have no equivalent of the "Onion Johnnies" do we? What would English people sell in France? Bow ties, tea? Anyway, must go. There's a man at the door with a huge free box of Paté. But he says I can't have it until I withdraw the word "cheap".  (Other meat-based products are available).