THE VEXING AND THORNY ISSUE OF HOW TO PRONOUNCE PERFUMES

 

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On my way to meeting my best friend Helen at the Birmingham City Art Gallery, I had just enough time yesterday to ‘nip’ into House Of Fraser to check out the latest perfume goings-on. As a huge and tacky Thierry Mugler commercial for the latest Alien ‘Eau Extraordinaire’ played repetitively on loop, I sashayed past Tom Ford, Serge Lutens, and other meagre, standard, and expected, selections, in search of Guerlain. To be honest, I am very saddened and disappointed by the current state of Shalimar, especially considering I have just drained the remains of my delectable vintage extrait – in particular, I am miffed by the eau de parfum –  which I think is quite horrible in the opening top notes (a leathery bergamot mess that just doesn’t work), and was wanting to see if the current parfum might for some reason end up being nicer. Not being able to see it, having moved past the stench of Coco Mademoiselle and the irritating pout of the infinitely resistible Ms Keira Knightley (WHO can bear that woman?!), I ended up asking a friendly looking shop assistant where the counter might be found.

 

 

 

 

 

” Can I help you?”

 

 

 

“Yes, can you tell me where Guerlain is, please?”

 

 

“??….

 

 

 

“Er…….Guerlain…..?”

 

 

“……….????????”

 

 

 

………

 

 

 

“You know the one, Samsara and all that”

 

 

 

 

Ohhhhhhh…………Gerr-LAYNE!!! Yeah – it’s just over there, yeah?”

 

 

 

 

 

(! ! ! )

 

 

 

 

 

 

images

 

 

 

….then cue this snobbish little mister’s silent rolling of his eyes (they probably just widened and tautened, imperceptibly, in actual fact, I would hope, after all these years of living in Japan) : chuckling to himself unmaliciously, we would hope,  as he flashes back twenty two years down a time tunnel to this very same store, then called Rackham’s, where I had gone in search of the lovely Ivoire, by Balmain, as a birthday present for my mother.

 

 

 

 

 

“Do you have Balmain?” , ask I.

 

 

 

 

Uh?

 

 

 

“Balmain”.

 

 

 

“What?”

 

 

 

“Er…….”

 

 

 

 

 

“OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH……. ball-MAYNE you mean” corrected the assistant, with a condescending sneer I might add, as though I were the most uneducated and stupid idiot in the world. Bal-MOYne, said with the thickest, and least perfume-elegant, Brummy accent I have ever encountered. I was livid.

 

 

 

 

And now that I think about it, the third time, in fact, that this same thing happened was also in that shop, where I was corrected in my pronunciation of Gio by Armani, the original neon trombone tuberose (anyone remember that one? I kind of liked it in a way), which I correctly pronounced as ‘Jyo’, with one syllable, but was obviously, it goes without saying,  practically laughed right out of the shopfloor with a ha-ha- HAA!!!! you mean JEEEEEEEEE- oooooooooooooooooooo….

 

 

 

(Oh, alright then, signorina, yes, perhaps I do. Er, well I AM actually about to go and live in Rome as part of my university studies in Italian, stronza,  but never mind, I am sure that you know you better. JEE-o it is then. I felt humiliated. )

 

 

 

 

I do realise, of course,  that by mentioning the fact I ‘specialised in’ foreign languages I risk sounding like a total, unbearable snob and deserve nothing but your contempt (even though I spent the entire four years in a whirl of mania and self indulgence and not doing any work, and in my second year didn’t go to one Italian grammar class…but still….

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Now then, Mr Chapman, it would seem, according to Dottoressa (Calzone, or whatever her name was), that you have failed to attend even one grammar class in the entire year. Not even one, even though they were described to you as quite compulsory. How might you account for this?”

 

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t, as I stood there shame face in the professor’s parlour. The truth was, I could never get out of bed in time. But I somehow managed to get out of the situation with profuse apologies and some lost little boy act, and in any case I was anyway was shortly about to go and spend a GLORIOUS, unforgettable year in Rome, the most carefree of my entire life, mindlessly happy , almost, where I just lived by the minute and the sun and my senses and managed to come back fairly fluent in the lingua through natural  absorption and hanging out with my Italian amici, thus making up for the lack of interest in the past historic, the subjunctive, and whatever other staccato vexations that arose in studying that most pure and musical of languages.

 

 

 

 

Anyway. That is what it is. Just suffice it to say that I am not COMPLETELY without knowledge when it comes to the pronunciation of these things

 

 

 

 

And of course, I don’t expect every other person to know the ins and outs of perfume pronunciation. Obviously. People have different educational backgrounds.

 

 

 

BUT:  to be corrected, by an bloated, eyeshadowed dipstick looking at me as though I were a ignorance incarnate, when she should be the one who at least knows the fundamental idea of how each perfume, not to mention the bloody perfume house, is pronounced, is just, somehow, too much.

 

 

 

 

I mean it does have to be said that we Brits are pretty poor on the whole when it comes to foreign languages. I know that most of us are quite crap. It’s quite shameful, actually. I think there must still be some vestiges of that old Britannia-rules-the-waves-arrogance in which we expect everyone else just to speak English, in that typical, island minded, way, but to my mind, though pronouncing perfumes in very affected straight-from-the-throat French,  or rat-a-tat-tat Italian could come across as VERY pretentious and make you sound  foolish ( to my mind, the perfect way to say a perfume’s name  it is to know the basic pronunciation, but soften it with a more natural English lilt so as not to come across as a totally ostentatious prick)…………… I’m sorry, a person who is SELLING the damn perfume should at least know, vaguely, just in the ballpark, HOW TO SAY ITS BLOODY NAME. Shouldn’t she? He? Am I wrong? Is this demanding too much? And should they then try to embarrass their customers by mocking their own, correct, pronunciation? Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

I think the most shocking experience I have ever had in this torturous pronunciation regard was, astonishingly, at Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie (can you pronounce that?) in  Harrods. Yes, you read that correctly. Roja, who is presumably French, was not there, but my god you should have heard the mangled pronunciation that was coming out of the mouth of one of his well-trained – we assume –  assistants. He was actually a lovely, unaffected, and very helpful chap, and I took to him and his friendly manner, but if you had closed your eyes and listened to what emerged from his lips you would have had no idea what perfumes he was talking about. Ninner RiKKy, Ar-kweeste, LEZZ NEZZ, it was a shocker, and my brutalized inner eardrums were very close to bleeding when he got to the perfumes of MCDI: Enlevement Au Serail (I can’t even approximate how he pronounced it but my cat could do a better job0), Un Coeur En Mai (“Oon Koyer enn My“) Jesus Christ we are talking about a pronunciation that bore NO RESEMBLANCE WHATSOEVER to the original names. At all.  I needed a translator, or to steal a quick glance at the label on the bottle in question to have any idea of what he was ‘guiding’ me through.  Each staggeringly mispronounced syllable was like a knitting needle in the ear: nice as he was, I thought, this is a bloody shambles  – an embarrassment.

 

 

 

Now of course, not everyone has studied French or whatever other language, obviously, and I don’t expect people to walk around like Kevin Kline in French kiss doing a mortifying rendition of a ‘French man’, but  am I wrong, and overly critical, in expecting people who are selling perfumes to know how to pronounce them, just a bit, just vaguely, at least in an Anglicised version of how they were originally intended to be named? To know a Chanel from a channel?

 

 

 

I’d like to know. How do you personally cope if you are not sure of the pronunciation of a scent? Do you just remain mute? (…..”er……..THIS?” ) or do you attempt to pronounce it creatively and just pray for the best?

 

 

 

 

I don’t know. Perfume is a form of poetry, and the title of  a poem really matters. And I just think that good perfumes –  long gestated, deeply thought, inspired creations, by and large – deserve better.

54 Comments

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54 responses to “THE VEXING AND THORNY ISSUE OF HOW TO PRONOUNCE PERFUMES

  1. This reminds me of something that happened on a holiday in Beijing. I heard “Gucci” being pronounced as “GOWCH” – it was pronounced by removing the last letter of the word “goat” and replacing it with “-ch”.

  2. Katy

    I am still laughing! Tricksy, very tricksy those perfume sellers are. Tacky Mugler display, I would be disappointed if it was not! I think pointing and “that one” works fine. I have not found too many people who get hung up on perfume pronunciation, happily.

    • I know: I am just being a grouch.

      • Rafael

        No, just a SNOB. It’s the word that the uninformed use to describe the intelligent, cultivated and selective rather than acknowledge that someone might know just a little more than they.Where would we be without language and the correct pronunciation thereof? Sublime words like orchidaceous, meretricious…

      • Katy

        Now, for a closer look at something you also mentioned. Shalimar, Oh Shalimar, how I long to love thee, but I do not. I have tried and tried, even an expensive flanker, which I traded away for a bottle of Womanity and some Serge decants, only the Parfum Initial is bearable, because your opening is dreadful and chemically, and how I hate to use that as a adjective because perfume is chemicals! Just nice smelling ones! I have not smelled any vintage, which I am sure is heaven, just as the dry down on paper, 48 hours later, is lovely, I use these little paper strips as bookmarks, haunting myself with what Shalimar should be. You should have paused long enough to smell Alien Essence Absolue, thick, golden sunshine in a bottle and Tom Ford Sahara Noir, frankincense and very little else.

      • You are right, actually. I was surprisingly pleased by the Sahara Noir, and by the whole collection in fact.

  3. cath

    Oops. I also have been pronouncing Gio as jee-o, like in amore mio, where the vowels are split.

  4. I couldn’t agree more.
    The worst I’ve ever heard was also an attack on Gucci, the perpetrator was a US saleswoman: GUKKI with the u pronounced as in but.
    Horrifying!!!!!

  5. Clio

    Roja is from Croydon. His own pronunciations are correct – if somewhat theatrically embellished. In the Haute Parfumerie dept. there is a strong impression that most of the staff are hired for looks not intellect.

    • Marvellous.

      Yes, the male vendors are quite slender and striking I must say. And yet; in the training sesh he MIGHT tell them how they are pronounced.

      (He is from CROYDON?!!!)

      • And the story I have heard is that he changed the spelling of his name (originally Roger) because he didn’t like the way it was being mispronounced by French speakers. So he made it easier for them.

        I can’t get too fussed by the mispronunciation of perfume names. It’s annoying if it means people don’t know what you mean, and certainly annoying to be rudely corrected by somebody when you are getting it right, and they aren’t, but in the grand scheme of things…. well, I prefer to think if a perfume’s being marketed worldwide, then it is only to be expected that pronunciation of its name is likely to undergo some creative local interpretation. I’ll save my ire for other things.

      • Mine isn’t real ire; just bemused, vague irritation. I definitely agree that it’s not worth getting worked up about!

  6. emmawoolf

    Neil, you are a man after my own heart. Of course I deeply share your irritation on this matter. Imagine hearing eau de parfum as oo dee parfoom on a regular basis, thanks to the delightful nuances of the Norfolk accent. Or even better, eau de toilette translated as ooh dee toylat. I could go on!

  7. Tora

    I completely agree! Knitting needles! Inner tympanic torture!! Hell, if you are going to shill the stuff, at least say the name correctly. Years of studying French make me a bit casual about the ease with which perfume names fall out of my mouth. But, to be corrected by some ignorant cracker really chaps my ass. It takes ALL of my patience and good manners to just nod and proceed with whatever it was I was doing talking to the SA in the first place. I am totally a snob about this.

  8. Nancysg

    I must admit to complete ignorance of the correct pronunciation of French names, places or perfumes. I am always hesitant to attempt names of perfumes (such as your example of Enlevement Au Serail). The nicest SA’s in the best stores cringe quietly as I mangle the French language and if they are really helpful will say the name correctly for me; just in case my language challenged ear can learn something.

  9. A friend of mine translates fragrances names into English – this way he doesn’t have to bother with French/Italian pronunciations. The only problem is no one understands him.

    So Acqua di Gio becomes Gio’s Water and Chasse aux Papillons is Butterfly Catching. He is yet to find an SA that understands him the first time.

  10. Martha

    I circumvent the whole thing by shopping online. All the vendor cares about is my PayPal account number. However, I am really bad at pronunciation, unless the word is a Spanish one, and shudder to imagine how my attempts would be received by those in the know.

  11. I’m an unapologetic language snob, but I can forgive the gum smacking clerk at the post office . . . “does this package contain anything hazardous such as lithium batteries, nuclear waste or PAR-FUME” . . . However, the SA at Roja Dove (who charges mucho dinero for his creations) would get a tongue lashing from me, that’s for sure!

    Now, if only someone would clarify the pronunciation of Labdanum, I’d be a happy camper. Is it LAB-dah-NUM or LAB-d-NUM?

  12. After years of living in Japan I naturally (mis)pronounced a lot of things the way they do there. Walking into an Hermès boutique in Chicago and saying エルメス (eru-mess, pretty much) as they would in Japan, I was corrected by the SA who said it’s air-mezz. I still don’t believe them, and I guess I won’t until I go to fancy France.

    • I think the correct pronunciation is somewhere between the two, but as I have had such infuriating experiences of monstrous, unforgiveable snobbery in Japan Hermes boutiques, I would rather not pronounce it in the Japanese fashion. Those ice cold bitches, seriously I could have killed one of them in Marunouchi. It honestly almost came to blows ( I just slammed the door and stormed out instead).

  13. Loved this post. I have the opposite problem in that I live in France and am worried that I’m not speaking with correct intonation and pronunciation. I’m sure when I go back to NZ I will encounter terrible versions of Gucci, Guerlain and anything of that ilk.

  14. Dearest Ginza
    Honestly. The Dandy despairs of being corrected. Givenchy and Hermes, if ever you have the call to ask for either, seem to elicit the most exquisite mispronunciations.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy
    PS Someone told me just this week that Mr Dove’s given first name was Roger – I have no idea if it’s true, but what a hoot if it were!

  15. K.C.

    Agreed on a fronts, good sir…I am a bonafide language snob (I’ve had an intensive language arts background) and shiver when I hear any word mispronounced. I think it’s imperative that perfumes be pronounced as they are intended, in their original languages. If the seller can’t pronounce the item sold, it makes for a less real experience and a much less convincing sell. I love colloquialisms and vernacular, but am a stern believer that context is king in that regard. Oh and I believe it’s lab-d-num; I don’t think there need be much emphasis on that second syllable, based on my linguistic intuition. Does that all sound snobby?

  16. Lilybelle

    I usually feel embarrassed (isn’t that funny?) to have to repeat myself, and sorry for the sales assistant who doesn’t understand what I’m asking for, and yes one would ASSUME they would be taught how to pronounce what they’re selling, but…as the old saying goes, “to assume is to make an ASS out of U and ME.” Yes, it’s a bit irritating, and furthermore it dampens the experience of what should be a totally sybaritic shopping experience. Buying perfume should be more special than shopping for a carton of eggs. It’s a little thing but it is irritating. Just like wait staff in restaurants annoy me when they’re overly chatty and not well trained (now that’s really snobby). I think this is why some people become reclusive as they age.

  17. As you know, I teach in French so I kind of toggle back and forth between English and French all day. It’s actually pretty difficult for me to mis-pronounce something French meaning that I really have to think about it to do it. What you described above? It happens to me every single time I go out perfume sniffing. Like you, I die a little on the inside to be corrected with the incorrect pronunciation.

    But then, I do something stupid like mispronounce something in English :-/ It happens!

  18. Renee Stout

    I was laughing out loud all through this. I agree, they should know how to pronounce the names correctly. But what sticks in my craw more than that, is the fact that I have never encountered an SA that seemed the least bit interested in even familiarizing themselves with the notes of the scents they’re selling, even though some manufactures provide booklets with this information that are kept behind the counter just in case a customer should ask. It’s the lack of curiosity about the perfumes that they are selling that gets to me.

  19. Thanks for writing so entertainingly about a small peeve that’s long been a pet of mine. It’s not as bad as it could be, living here in Canada where French is our second official language, but it’s worse than you might expect. To me, it’s not so much the mispronunciation that gets me annoyed (because sometimes it’s actually kind of funny); it’s the look of smug superiority and delighted disdain that follows the “correction.” No, I am sorry, salespeople, Montale is not “Mon TALL eee” and FM Iris Poudre is not “EYE riss POO dray” and Hèrmes is not “HUR meez,” no matter how many times you oh-so-patiently insist.

  20. I think this mispronunciation thing is universal. I once had a French friend who studied English and she kept speaking about the Austrian composer “moh-SÁÁR”. I’m German, and didn’t quite know to whom she was referring to. Then she blurted out, “okay, MÁW-tzart, but it sounds so fucking pretentious!” Voilà: pretentious to pronounce correctly. I believe it’s part shame, part not wanting to sound snobbish, and also, of course, part not caring one tiny bit.

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