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The curious insights of my Montreal 'frenamies'

“False friends” are what linguists call English and French words with the same spelling but different meanings. CBC/QWF writer-in-residence Sarah Lolley loves the wild mental goose chases triggered by the sight of them.

CBC's resident blogger muses over words like 'pain' and 'coin' that trigger wild mental goose chases

Writer Sarah Lolley's eye catches on the word 'pain' whenever she walks past this pastry shop in her NDG neighbourhood. 'You know what they say: no pain, no gain.' (Sarah Lolley/CBC)

The lights at the intersection cycled from green to yellow to red and back to green while I stood on the corner, immobile, flummoxed by the message on the building opposite me.

Two words painted on brick:

inspire

 expire

My mind raced. What did it mean

Was it a message of despair? A comment on the futility of a creative life?

Was a hopeless artist asking, through graffiti, "What's the point of all this, anyway?"

Or was this a heated invective against wasting the opportunity to make art?  

A creator's command: "Fill the world with inspiration! If you will not, leave this earth and clear a path for the rest of us!"

These are the words painted on a brick wall that stopped Sarah Lolley dead in her tracks, bemused. (Sarah Lolley/CBC)

Or maybe, I thought, shifting my grocery bag from one hand to the other, this was a whispered supplication, a reminder to spend our days thoughtfully.

Maybe this was a two-word echo of Henry David Thoreau's reasoning for going to the woods: "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

Just then, I took in the storefront immediately below the painted sign, and I realized that I had it all wrong.

The store was a yoga apparel shop. The painted message, which was in French, was simply a reminder to take a deep breath.

False friends

"False friends" are what linguists call words like these: English and French words with the same spelling but different meanings. (Just think of four, the kitchen appliance or coin, the place where two walls meet.)

But I think that "false" is a bit unfair.

I, for one, love the way these Montreal frenemies (fren-amies?) harness my overactive imagination and send it on wild mental goose chases.

Frenamies all over the city

The word PAIN screams at me from a Plateau storefront and I turn, expecting a medical clinic.

Instead, I see a bakery.

My mind makes the split-second adjustment from soreness to sourdough, but the image of agony persists and a new avenue of thought opens up: for the low-carb dieter, are they not the same thing?

After all, you know what they say: no pain, no gain.

There's that word again. In Montreal, pain is available everywhere. (Kim McNairn/CBC)

At two o'clock, there's a class at the gym named bras. Wait.… Is that what we're expected to wear? But no, of course not, I realize, rereading the word: it's an upper-body workout.

My mind flip-flops from underwire to biceps. Then it marries the two together: half an hour of push-ups and dips can't help but improve the way I look in lingerie.

Ouaf-ouaf, coin-coin

Why is the duck on the children's poster at the library talking about money?

Oh, he isn't: he's just quacking in French.

"Coin! Coin!" says the duck. Who knew?

Sarah Lolley's son, Rowan, is enchanted by the sounds that ducks make - in any language. (Sarah Lolley/CBC)

At the Benny Centre pool in NDG, I momentarily think the lifeguards are reminding us we've almost made it to Easter, with their yellow sign reading Lent.  

I watch the swimmers drudging along in the slow lane and wonder how many of them are Catholics who've given up a sedentary lifestyle as penance.

The sign marking the slow lane at the Benny Centre pool also serves as a reminder of the weeks leading up to Easter in the Christian tradition. (Sarah Lolley/CBC)

And then there's the word email, printed on my tube of toothpaste of all places.

"What's that about?" I wonder as I brush, leaning into the mirror to stare wearily at the bags under my eyes as dawn breaks outside my window.

Does fresh, minty breath translate into more peppy electronic communication?

I glance at the tube of toothpaste again and see that I missed a minuscule accent:émail. Enamel. Tooth enamel, of course.

(Sarah Lolley/CBC)

My cheesiest frenamie

You might actually know my oldest French frenamie.  A lot of Canadians do, their faces breaking into sheepish smiles when I mention him.

I am wise to his double-meaning now, after all these years.

But I still choose to read him in the wrong language.

I love the resulting images my mind conjures up: regimental coats and muskets, the fife and drums at dawn and an ancient, greystone rampart.

You see, this French frenamie of mine and his English neighbour have joined forces on the grocery store shelf, their union making them more than the sum of their parts.

Alone, they are mere descriptors of a block of mass-produced cheese.

But together, they form the muscular and heroic name of a dignified cheddar: Old Fort.

Sarah Lolley is quite sure she's not the only one whose mind travels to greystone fortifications when she's in the cheese aisle at the grocery store. (Sarah Lolley/CBC)

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by the 2017 CBC and Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence, Sarah Lolley.

We'd love to hear about your 'frenamies.'

Comment below, or share your story on the CBC Montreal Facebook page

About the Author

Sarah Lolley

2017 CBC/QWF writer-in-residence

Sarah Lolley is a medical writer and essayist who also writes fiction. Her yoga-themed children's picture book, Emily and the Mighty Om, was published in 2014. She has a master's degree in experimental medicine specializing in biomedical ethics from McGill University. Lolley has a passion for cryptic crosswords, and she's a mother of two young children.

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