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YOU'VE GOT two minutes. Two minutes to write down all the French words you can think of that we use in ordinary everyday English speech. Nonsense, there are hundreds of them. You've got pencil, paper and watch? Right, head down and off you go.

YOU'VE GOT two minutes. Two minutes to write down all the French words you can think of that we use in ordinary everyday English speech. Nonsense, there are hundreds of them. You've got pencil, paper and watch? Right, head down and off you go.

 Baton, reservoir, magazine. Blancmange, garage, bureau. Splendid! Programme, crayon, masseur. Plaque, casserole, contretemps. Here, this is really good. Fiancé, dessert, questionnaire. Hotel, sabotage, cigarette. Wonderful! Now just keep going while I develop my theme . . .

 You see my point? We're not exactly innocent of word-theft across the Channel. For every linguistic booze-cruise descending on the Channel ports, there's a steady flow of dictionary plunder in the other direction. Certainly from south of the Channel, from here in the Deep South, you might think the traffic was all one way, and that the thieving French regularly plundered our dictionaries and made off with the loot in sacks marked le swag. And some loot!

 Our British eyebrows reach for the ceiling when we come across in Midi Libre, our local newspaper, the expression le starting-block in an article about athletics, or le melting-pot in a report about EU fishing policy, or le gentleman-farmer in a piece about style. Stolen and indeed laundered linguistic goods feature strongly in the endless handouts we find in our letter-box. I remember one from Intermarché, a national chain of supermarkets, the size of a broadsheet newspaper featuring enormous mouth-watering cuts of succulent beef. The meat was produced, the blurb said, in the European Union, but there was an asterisk directing you to a tiny footnote: hormis Royaume Uni, United Kingdom excepted. Aha. They wouldn't take our meat (this was in the days of BSE), but they'll take our word for it: le steack at so much per kilo.

 You could be forgiven, looking through these handouts, for wondering why you bothered to learn all that French vocab. back in 5th year. It's strange that in the land of haute couture articles of everyday clothing in France should have reach-me-down names from across the Channel and from beyond the Atlantic: if you spoke not a word of French you could still kit yourself out quite comprehensively night and day in local clothing stores with le jean, le T-shirt, le short, le pyjama, le sweat (i.e.sweatshirt), le pullover for when there's a nip in the air, les baskets (trainers, what you play basketball in) and les tennis for informal footwear, not to mention le smoking (i.e. dinner jacket) for more formal occasions. As for le slip . . . in crossing the Channel le slip has undergone an interesting change: here it refers to a style of male underpants, which come in various sizes, patron, grand patron, super patron, pacha (i.e. pasha), etc.

 All these are pronounced as though they were French (and who's to blame them?) and we flounder helplessly sometimes, quite unable to recognise our own. Christian, the builder from Félines Minervois we once employed, occasionally recommended something called 'wees pirree' for this or that task. We surrendered, totally lost. What could he mean? Eventually we fell in behind him as he marched to the boiler room, where we kept general household and DIY products. He pointed to a bottle labelled 'White Spirit'.

 Sometimes it's more abstruse. In the days when I lived in the Tarn département I once asked M. Renard, the amiable proprietor of l'Oustalet, the café-restaurant (you see, it really does work both ways) in the village of Lacabarède, how he was. Not bad, he supposed, but his view of the world would have been less jaundiced if his 'babbeefoot' hadn't been broken. 'Babbeefoot' was a new one on me: a bone in the foot, maybe? So much of understanding French, in the early stages of a conversation before your ear is fully tuned, depends on identifying the keyword and reacting appropriately, even though much of what surrounds the keyword goes over your head. I didn't know how to react: Perhaps I should have said 'How painful for you! Have you been to the doctor?'. I wasn't certain, so I said nothing and just nodded non-committally. I expect I got a black mark in the kitchens and an extra dose of pepper in the sauce diable to spice up this hard and heartless Anglais, typically unsympathetic to M. Renard's desperate plight.

 It turned out that 'babbeefoot' was Babyfoot, the manic miniature football game that he kept in his bar, the one where you twiddle the knobs furiously and your row of full backs spin in unison somersaults and propel the ball violently into your own goal. A shame for M. Renard, but I can't say I felt all that deprived, having gone for un steack and not for un match de foot.

 A few governments ago the Keep French Pure lobby prevailed upon a M. Toubon, then Minister of Culture, to act decisively against the growing adulteration of French with imports like le babyfoot and le british look, not to mention virtually the entire IT vocabulary. Most of these Anglo-Saxon additives come from across the Atlantic rather than across the Channel, in what Paris journalists have coined la coca-colonisation. They're probably the same journalists who called M. Toubon, very unfeelingly, Mr Allgood.

 Mr Allgood should have left well alone, even though for a while we heard less of le weekend on radio and television and more of la fin de semaine, less of le leader and more of le chef, less of le mel (i.e. e-mail) and more of le courriel. Not for long, though: language grows at its own pace, and you can't do much to stunt its growth. Why, the other day we shared a lift in Montpellier with a young Frenchman who said OK, je speed into his mobile. No translation needed. Imagine The National Trust or indeed the Royal Society urging the minister for the arts and culture to ban . . . well, how are you getting on with that list?

 . . . fête, morale, bonhomie. Entente cordiale, joie de vivre, camaraderie . . . that's more like it. Touch them at your peril - English has such need of them!