je ne sais quoi

We had a couple of guests at our monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event: Jenna, lately graduated from Tufts University, and passing through town at just the right time; and Maury’s aunt Susan, who this time had come escorted by Maury rather than having eloped from her nursing home.

“I find the word exquisite exquisite,” Jenna said. “It has a certain… what would be the right way of putting it?”

Je ne sais quoi,” said Susan.

“Yes! Exquisite has a certain je ne sais quoi,” declared Jenna. “Thank you.”

“Actually,” Susan said, smiling politely, “I meant to say that I didn’t know what the right way of putting it would be. Words sometimes… well, they don’t fail me so much as pass me – without stopping. I’m more well aged than a fine wine. Jeunesse, c’est quoi?”*

“You sound quite erudite to me,” Jenna said. “It’s interesting, though: I’m used to je ne sais quoi having only three syllables.” (She pronounced it like “jun say kwa”.)

“Well, then, jeune, c’est quoi?” said Susan. “It does seem like a typically French phrase, with that amorous touch – the little moue you make when saying je, the air kiss you make with the quoi – ah, kissing air. I suppose if I were to stick to that my life would have less trouble. And less fun. Or maybe not. Je ne sais pas. Well, when it comes to staying out of trouble, je n’essaie pas.” She smiled sweetly at Jenna, who returned that sort of glazed smile that says “I don’t understand the language you’re speaking but I’ll pretend.”

“It’s interesting how in order to express the foreignness of something to us we retreat to a foreign phrase,” Jenna said. “But I guess it’s really a way of finessing the matter, by drawing on the perceived elegance of French. There’s even a certain insouciance to it –” She lifted her wine glass with her left hand and made a gesture as though taking a drag on a cigarette and then waving it with her right hand: “Ah, je ne sais quoi!”

“Indeed,” said Susan. Jenna’s gesture reminded her of her glass of wine. “I do think that my verre de vin needs to be rempli. …Now, doesn’t that sound so much more cultured than ‘My glass of wine needs to be refilled’?” She held out her glass to Maury.

“Well, we use many French-derived terms for the more refined things,” Maury said – “beef and pork from the French for the meat, and cow and pig from English for the animals, for instance.”

Susan kept holding out her glass. “Well, I do hope you’re not saying this old cow is being a pig in wanting another glass, Maurice. Because if I don’t get another drink, I don’t know what-all.”

“Not at all,” Maury said, taking the glass. “Shall I bring some more canapés?”

“Oh, yes, one should not drink on an empty stomach. À jeun, c’est quoi?” She turned to Jenna. “Voulez-vous aussi un autre verre de vin?

“Um…” Jenna hesitated, unsure what she was being asked.

Susan raised an eyebrow. “Jenna say, ‘Quoi?’” She picked up Jenna’s glass and handed it to Maury. “Garçon! I think she needs a little more French in her.”

*French phrases used herein:
Je ne sais quoi: “I don’t know what”
Jeunesse, c’est quoi?: “Youth, what’s that?”
Jeune, c’est quoi?: “Young, what’s that?”
Je ne sais pas: “I don’t know”
Je n’essaie pas: “I don’t try”
À jeun, c’est quoi?: “On an empty stomach, what’s that?”
Voulez-vous aussi un autre verre de vin?: “Would you also like another glass of wine?”
Quoi?: “What?”

5 responses to “je ne sais quoi

  1. I know millions will rush to point out that you were playing fast & loose with the French for fast – le jeûne (fasting from e’s and circumflex accents, perhaps?)

    • I was thinking of the adverb, jeun, as in à jeun, “on an empty stomach” (or, adverbially, “fasting”) – though you’re right, I could always have used the noun. I’ve added the À, though, for clarity, and changed “fasting” to “on an empty stomach”.

  2. So, when I hear someone say, “He has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, that person’s saying, “He has a certain I don’t know what”?

    • Literally! But the phrase is used to mean “indefinable something.” So you know what it is but you don’t know how to define it.

      • Okay. Thanks for clarifying that. I’ve heard that phrase most, if not all, of my life and I’ve never really understood what it meant and, consequently, I’ve never used it. Thanks again.

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