“We’re now going to try and land, cabin crew take your seats for landing.”
We’d been circling Biarritz for 20 minutes, waiting for the storm raging below us to abate, and “trying to land” wasn’t a prospect that was filling me with much excitement. We started descending through the thick layer of cloud and I immediately wished we had stayed up there, cruising the Basque skies. The plane started jostling right and left, up and down, like a toy in the hands of a baby flapping at the sight of a milk bottle. I gripped the arms of my seat and looked out of the window, hoping that the familiar sight of Biarritz would take my mind off the fact that the plane wings looked way more flexible than they should, considering they’re made of metal. The view was amazing: I could see the lighthouse, the Hôtel du Palais and the Villa Belza (that, incidentally, I’ve had big plans for since I was 5). I could also see huge waves crashing on the shore and trees clearly having a rough time in the gale force winds. As we got lower towards the airport the turbulence got worse and, paralysed with fear, I could do nothing but feel sick and hope for the best. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, we were above the sea. Good, I thought, at least when we crash we have a better chance of survival and we won’t kill half the inhabitants of Biarritz. Then everything disappeared and I saw that we were back in the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, with a hint of boredom in their voice:
“I think we might have missed the airport”.
This use of understatement during a potentially life-threatening situation is, in my experience, typical of British people and something that you’re very unlikely to learn at school or from a text book. Why not? Because understatement is a way of life, a way of looking at the world. Through it, you can minimise situations, contain your emotions and create a distance between you and reality. And often, be very funny.
If I had been in an interpreting situation, it would have been quite difficult to convey the exact meaning. As French people don’t use understatements quite as extensively as British people do, they might not understand that the person actually meant, “We’ve completely missed the airport, this is scary” and think it a very odd thing to say. I would probably have to keep the exact structure, but instead of saying it in a detached voice, I could roll my eyes or use a worried facial expression to make it clear that this is not to be taken literally. I also think a French speaker would be more likely to engage the person next to them or travelling with them rather than use a throwaway comment like this one. So another way of interpreting this would be to use a question, like: “Haven’t we missed the airport?!”
Whichever way you look at it, we missed the airport by about 125 miles: we had to land in Bordeaux, adding 4 hours to our journey. It was the worst storm in Biarritz since records began for that time of year, with 120 km/h (75 miles per hour) winds at 18:30, just as we began our approach.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:18+00:00 January 21st, 2004|Language|4 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. Sarah January 21, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    When we were in Biarritz in the summer our surfing instructor, who was conducting lessons in both French and English, said something about that lighthouse (in French), and then it occurred to him to ask us what the English word was for it. When we said “lighthouse” every French child around us burst out laughing. Clearly our word is too literal or something. What does the French word mean, if not the same thing?
    Oh, and I’m glad you’re safe.

  2. Céline January 22, 2004 at 9:46 am

    The etymology of “phare” is particularly interesting:
    1546; lat. pharus, gr. Pharos, from the island next to Alexandria, where the famous lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the world, was built in 300 B.C.
    This origin can be found in English with “pharology”, the study of lighthouses.

  3. Rym Rytr January 27, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    I’m sooooo happy to (finally) find another lover of the twisted languages!
    Here in America, most do not have the self-control for understatement. A typical response from certain of the younger generations would be “OMYGOD – WE JUST DIED!”
    Extremism is rampant in the U.S. of A. “And everything” seems to be the most often used addition to excuses and requests for sympathy.
    “But I did! I put out the trash and everything!”
    Sometimes, in my desire to detach myself from any emotions what-so-ever, I’ll say, “If yer lookin’ for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary. It’s between symbiosis and syrup.”
    Anyhow… I’m marking your blog for future and daily reading.
    Thanks much.
    Rym Rytr (Rhyme Writer)

  4. Céline January 27, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    On that subject, I remember reading an article saying that the word “awesome” was so constantly used in America (“Try the new Thingie burger!! It’s AWESOME!!!”) that it was becoming difficult to find words to describe things that are truly awesome (that have the power to to make people feel amazed and full of admiration or fear).

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