I never realized how incredibly often I used the word “fancy” until I tried to translate myself into French and stumbled to an awkward standstill.
I also never realized what an excellent, versatile, and sort of cheeky word it was, until I began to attempt to find a French equivalent.
Alas, I am still searching for a decent French stand-in. Interestingly, in the case of this fabulously elastic word, I find I don’t hold it against the French that they haven’t been clever enough to invent a French “fancy”. I feel pangs of pride, in my country and its culture, and I sort of feel the exclusivity you might feel in a private club … whose members understand, with no explanation required, the subtle silliness of referring to a fancy fold on a motel toilet paper roll, a fancy hairdo, or even fancy footwork.
Here are some of the myriad words that one must choose from when attempting to translate one facet of “fancy”:
Chic! — I tend to be rubbed the wrong way by people who focus too much on what’s fashionable, and that’s all this word really seems to mean. Something you’d find in a glamourous magazine or that you’d see walking along the Avenue Montaigne. But it’s less one’s own judgement, it seems to me, than it is a universal rating – does this person / bag / pair of shoes pass muster, or not?
Classe! — Being a bit of a communist at heart, I can’t help but dislike the not-so-subtle reference to that which is “upper-class” and therefore desirable. I hear my daughters and other young people using this adjective a lot. I try not to bristle, while resisting the urge to lecture them on the subject of class. “Classe” is admittedly more all-purpose than the English word “classy” but it still doesn’t have that touch of irony that I do so enjoy.
Fantaisie — Don’t be confused by this false friend. “Fantaisie” in French is used to distinguish costume jewelry from regular jewelry, or a baguette that was braided instead of being left straight like all the others. It’s the sort of adjective you might find in catalogues. Overused. It does not begin to have the versatility of “fancy” and certainly isn’t a fun word to use.
I realize, only through this process of really looking carefully at what I’d like to say in French but can’t, that English is more fun. OK, we have fewer idiomatic expressions. OK, it’s a functional language, used (and misused) everywhere for business, tourism and computer codes. But I’ve come to appreciate that my compatriots back in the “New World” are really the kings of one-liners, as well as single words that pack a punch, allowing a person to save her breath.