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?”
“You know the one, Samsara and all that”
Ohhhhhhh…………Gerr-LAYNE!!! Yeah – it’s just over there, yeah?”
(! ! ! )
….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.
“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.