England’s greatest icon

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Culture Online project is looking for icons representing England. The cup of tea is one of the candidates and it’s my personal favourite. I didn’t drink tea when I arrived in England but I quickly learned that accepting people’s offer of "a nice cup of tea" and making happy noises while sipping my mug was a sure way to win their hearts.
Living here has shown me that when French people say that English people constantly drink tea, they’re not just repeating a tired stereotype. Similarly, the Brits have a very clear image of what a French person looks like: a cyclist wearing a stripy top and onions round his neck. Where on earth does that image come from? I went to an "ancestors party" last year, where everyone had to dress up as one of their ancestors, and I was persuaded to don a stripy top and a string of onions, as I was assured that that’s what French people look like (in British folklore). Funnily enough, there was another French person there who was wearing exactly the same "French costume" and was as intrigued as me as to its origins. Like me, she had never met anyone favouring this particular attire in France. Any ideas?

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:57+00:00 June 14th, 2004|Culture|12 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Marie-Louise June 14, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    I actually learned about that last year in Roscoff: the French “wearing a stripy top and onions round his neck” were Bretons crossing the channel to sell their onions in Britain. The bike was a later addition from what I remember reading on the Tourist Office wall signs in Roscoff. See http://membres.lycos.fr/mrrosko/asso02302.htm (in French) for some more details.

  2. céline June 14, 2004 at 9:59 pm

    Brilliant. Thanks.

  3. MM June 14, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    Many years ago, my brothers and I drove into a small car park at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-Mer (?) in the Camargue and were given some help in manoeuvring by a very friendly man in a blue-and-white-striped jumper and a beret. He turned out to be from Yorkshire.

  4. Daisy June 15, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    My grandmother used to buy onions from a Frenchman who sold them door to door (not sure if he wore a striped t-shirt) but they were able to chat away quite happily in Welsh and Breton.

  5. Tony June 15, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    Surely a bowler hat and an umbrella? The fact that we don’t wear the first or carry the second much any more doesn’t really matter. Major Thompson’s image will live forever, at least for the French.
    For my first meeting with my French (prospective) father-in-law I arrived at CdeG airport in a bowler hat carrying an umbrella and smoking a pipe – he had had the same thought and arrived in a Breton beret with a Gitane hanging from his lips. We agreed to call it a draw. (That was probably the last thing we ever did agree on.)
    By the way, may I mention diffidently that “Brits” is to be avoided as far as possible? It jars a bit on many British people over, say, forty years old .

  6. Qov June 15, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    There has to be something to the striped top theory, as it appears that French has a word for it. I’m reading both versions of your blog, French first, as a way to improve my own French, and I didn’t know what une marinière was at first read. I was guessing that it was another word for beret. The onions aren’t familiar to me — I would have gone for a couple of baguettes under one arm.
    Perhaps there is a children’s illustrator respnsible for embedding this image in the British mind.

  7. Andréas June 16, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    I suspect that ‘The Avengers’ has something to do with the enduring image of the Englishman gentleman. Over here, it’s called ‘Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir’ and it’s still broacast on terrestrial TV.
    And it seems that it’s irrelavant that today the average Englishman does not dress like Patrick Macnee and the average Englishwoman does not dress like Diana Rigg (shame about the latter, I think).

  8. céline June 17, 2004 at 8:42 am

    Tony: I had no idea “Brits” was insulting to older people. Why is it so?
    Andréas: You’re probably right about the influence of “The Avengers”. It’s always been extremely popular in France.
    Everyone: Last night my best buddie, who’s learning sign language, told me that the sign for “French” is a handlebar mustache drawn above the mouth with the index and thumb. To sign “English”, you rub your left index with your right index. She wasn’t sure why but thought it might be because the index is the finger for “e”.

  9. Marie-Louise June 17, 2004 at 11:52 am

    I’ve heard that sign languages often pick up on physical characteristics. For fun, here’s a page of French sign language with countries. Could the Germany sign come from the 1870 Prussian pointy helmet?
    Oh, and don’t miss the celebs: the signs seem to come directly from the Guignols/Spitting Images.

  10. David W Solomons June 17, 2004 at 5:01 pm

    The onions for the French (and the leeks for the Welsh) come to the fore in the amusing cartoons on this school reminiscences page.

  11. Tony June 17, 2004 at 9:41 pm

    Céline, I didn’t say “Brits” was insulting. It’s just that some people – not only old poops – haven’t liked it much since it came into use a few years ago. It’s probably just that most other single-syllable words of this kind – even a harmless abbreviation like “Jap” – have come to sound contemptuous, and because “Brit” is an abbreviation of the original American “Britisher”.
    The difficulty is, of course, that while in the plural one can say “the British”, there is no singular word and “British person” is clumsy. (A “Briton”, of course, can only be Ancient.)
    I wish I hadn’t mentioned it, really; better forget that I did.

  12. céline June 29, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    jm on the French side of this blog has found a site that tells us there are 15 johnnies still selling their onions in the UK… I’d love to see one.

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