“Elvis est Le King,” he told me.
I didn’t think so. I wasn’t one of those punks who’d cheered at Elvis’s 1977 passing, but he was somebody my mum liked, so I thought he was a bit naff, really – mums’ and dads’ music. Fresh in my mind, I suppose, was bloated Vegas Elvis, and not the cool young dude who’d broken all that ground in the 50s and made some fine records I now love. I thought I’d better not test this guy’s goodwill and say I thought it had to be a very long time since Elvis had made a decent record. Instead I latched onto a linguistic certainty. “C’est a dire,” I said, “Elvis est le roi.”
“Non non, le King,” he said.
“Yeah but… that’s… like, I mean… Ici, il est le roi, non? Le roi de rock n roll.”
“Il est le King,” the guy insisted. “Elvis est le King.” He seemed genuinely puzzled as to why I couldn’t take this on board, and soon got up to go, giving me a what-kind-of-twat-are-you-actually look but offering a handshake all the same.
At that time, French was the only foreign language I knew, learned, somewhat painfully, at school and unused and ignored for five or six years. What’s more, I’d never lived abroad anywhere, and didn’t have the experience or knowledge to realise that languages are living things, that they don’t always follow the rules in coursebooks. Just as we call a dead end a cul-de-sac in English, a heel shaped like a sharp knife a stiletto, a one-storey house a bungalow, the pleasure in other people’s bad luck schadenfreude, the French also incorporate a load of foreign words quite naturally into their everyday language, despite the disapproval of the Academie Française.
So at least I learned something from my meeting with the cheerful French ted. Firstly, he was right, and Elvis was at least the first king* of rock n roll. He also gave me a signpost to this kind of linguistic sharing, and to the rather disappointing knowledge that I could be pedantic, and wrong, in at least two languages. I could have made it worse: I remembered one of our French teachers telling us that in France teddy boys were known as yé-yé boys** (from the English yeah), so at least I didn’t insist on calling him a oui-oui garçon – he might really have hit me then.
*I couldn’t find a photo of Elvis wearing a crown – that would have been a bit crass, and I’m glad he was sensible – I mean, it must have been tempting. The search for Elvis Presley + crown did lead me to a photo of his dental mould. Hmm. Er, no: Google it yourself.
**Not exactly true, in fact. They were more like 1960s pop kids. Proper teddy boys would have beaten them up. And would have been very narked if I’d mistaken one for a yé-yé boy. Bloody teachers.