Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Some years ago, I was - very nearly - dating a rather elegant and sexy Frenchwoman.

Well, for our first date we were going to meet on Tiananmen Square and then go for a meal and a concert.

I had suggested meeting at the north-east corner, on the steps of the History Museum. She was - predictably - running a little late. Then she called me to say we should meet instead by "the migdonal". I was a little bemused, but grunted an affirmation. The call cut out.

Now, this lady was an artist and photographer and very highly educated and involved with various Sino-French cultural programmes. It seemed to me entirely possible that she had exposed a rare gap in my English vocabulary. This did sound like a vaguely familiar word, but I couldn't place it. Perhaps it was a technical term in architecture. That seemed very plausible. It seemed to me that that odd 'gd' combination did occasionally occur in Greek (although I couldn't - and can't - readily think of any examples), and Greek words do furnish a lot of such technical vocabulary. I racked my brains as to what a "migdonal" might be. I hadn't been to the Square often enough to become very familiar with its layout and the different architectural features on it. The Monument to the People's Martyrs is the largest of these features: perhaps that - or some part of it - is a "migdonal"?

I scanned the Square for a sign of my French lady but couldn't spot her.

A few minutes later, she called me back.

"I am in front of the migdonal now."

"The what?"

"The migdonal."

"Er, I'm sorry. I have no idea what that is."

"You don't know the migdonal?!"

"No, I'm afraid I don't."

"You don't know where the migdonal is??"

"No. I don't even know what it is."

Can you guess what it is yet?

Yes, the obscure architectural feature she was trying to lead me towards was the 'golden arches' of McDonald's.

I know the French often omit the possessive 's when speaking English. I know they often fail to voice other final consonants. But shifting the stress from the second syllable to the first, voicing the 'c' so strongly as a 'g', and the repeated intrusion of the definite article had completely thrown me. And my embarrassed assumption that she was using technical vocabulary that I perhaps ought to know but didn't just led me further off track with my guesswork. It took quite a while to sort this misunderstanding out. And it wasn't a very auspicious start to our relationship.

I do feel, though, that the word 'migdonal' ought to exist. Surely it could be used for something?


Froog said...

Wow, I originally wrote 'archaeology' for 'architecture' there. Only caught it on a readthrough some hours later. Major brainfade!

That could have ruined the whole story....

Anonymous said...

I once woke in a cold sweat with the horrifying thought that I had failed to remove a typo before submitting an assignment earlier that day for one of my psychology modules.

It was 3 am and I rushed to the computer in a panic to confirm that the typo had registered correctly in the occipital but distraction (telephone call, pizza delivery?) had prevented the frontal lobe from taking corrective action. Being anal about such things, I was utterly mortified.

FionaJane said...

You see, the problem is just that you assumed that she was speaking English. I figured out what she meant before I scrolled anywhere near to the punchline - and even though I had no idea that there was a McD's on T Square. It's just the way it sounds if you are talking to a French person on a telephone. :-)

Froog said...

Yes, she was speaking English. And her English was pretty much flawless, and - most of the time - with scarcely any accent. It was very odd that she mispronounced this one word so strongly.

I think your assumption, FJ, is not so much that "this is how French people say McDonald's" (I know lots of other French people out here, and they don't say it like this!) but that "people always suggest meeting at a McDonald's". Actually, in Beijing they usually suggest meeting at a Starbucks - but T Square is one of the very few parts of the city that doesn't yet have one.

Anonymous said...

Like FionaJane, I got this as soon as she said it. Whether that bespeaks a greater native intelligence or just a greater comfort level with mangled English...

Froog said...

Probably both, Weeble.

Is 'Manglish' a recognised word. Perhaps this could be my contribution to the next edition of the OED.

I fret that I didn't tell the story well enough, if people - albeit people with freakish levels of "native intelligence" - are anticipating the punchline so easily.

A pity. This has long been one of my favourite anecdotes.