Amour Fou, L’Appel du Vide, and other French Phrases Worth Knowing

Amour fou

Used in English since the early 1900s, an amour fou is an uncontrollable and obsessive passion for someone, and in particular one that is not reciprocated. It literally means “insane love.”

Is it possible that we’ve set the bar to low for love? For what we find amazing? For what we consider hilarious? Of these three words so often thrown around on social media, two of them imply a serious physical or mental instability. If you were truly amazed at something, say a parcour video, you would find yourself in a state of astonishment, which technically means that you are paralyzed–incapable of movement. When you come across a video on Facebook that you find hilarious, you should expect to be driven to insanity upon watching it. Sociolinguistics got taken out for a ride in, of all places, a recent season of The Bachelor, in which the bachelor forbid the ladies from using the word amazing. They found it quite difficult. Amazement, an emotional state that should propel us to a certain state of catatonia has now become little more than a speech disfluency, like um or like. Love, on the other hand, can be used to describe a recent brownie that I ate, or a belt I might have recently funded on Kickstarter.

Hilarious and amazing have stretched out the elastic of their etymological origins, and their meaning will never snap back into shape. But what about love? If anything, love has gotten short shrift. Hilarious and amazing describe states of life-altering delight, yet love has been reduced to “like plus.”

Amour fou releases us from those lowly depths. Amour fou invites insanity, rather than suppressing it. Some of our favorite characters have been driven crazy by love, or at least in the presence of it–Don Quijote, Hamlet, Othello. If only the English language could engineer its own version of amour fou, we could express the maddening nature of our greatest passions, how they provoke in us feats of great strength and great stupidity, though oftentimes, noble stupidity. I wish we had an amour fou to call our own.

Here’s another one, minus my commentary.

L’appel du vide

Alongside l’esprit de l’escalier (more on that later), the French expression l’appel du vide often makes its way onto lists of foreign words and phrases that have no real English equivalent. It literally means “the call of the void,” but in practice it’s usually explained as the bizarre inclination some people have for doing something dangerous or deadly, no matter how foolish they know it is. So when you’re standing on a beach, l’appel du vide is the voice that tells you to swim away and never come back. When standing on a clifftop, l’appel du vide tells you to throw yourself off. There mightn’t be an obvious English equivalent, but the concept of l’appel du vide is related to the psychological notion of intrusive thoughts, and the mythological song of the Siren blamed for luring sailors to their doom.

It’s time to consider backward design…your students already have.

Recently I attended a training on Understanding by Design (UbD). Otherwise known as Backward Design, this curriculum design methodology popularized by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins encourages the designer to plan with the end in mind, seeking clarity of purpose above all things. The intent is that by declaring purpose (“what will learners take away from this experience?”), assessment and activity design become much more focused, resulting in the abandonment of less important activities and content. Speaking personally, the practice of UbD, in conjunction with my work with educational consultant Greg Duncan and my colleagues in PLC, has transformed how I plan, how I teach, and how I communicate with students regarding their growth as language learners.

End of infomercial.

My writing today is prompted not by my belief in the effectiveness of backward design; rather, by a comment made by a colleague during today’s training. A Grade Chair and music teacher in the training said, “Kids walk into my class thinking with the end in mind all the time. They say ‘Why do we need to learn this anyway?'”

Why do we need to learn this anyway?

A teacher’s reaction to this question is most often rage, frustration, or anaphalaxis. It seems to us like the knee-jerk reaction of an ill-informed and petulant child. In reality, kids are asking themselves the very question that we should be asking: “why are we doing this in the first place?”

It can be a sobering moment when someone you previously considered “under your wing” is actually way ahead of you in the thought process. While kids aren’t really thinking about backward design when they ask the dreaded question, they are thinking economicallyHow will I benefit from the lesson you’re about to put me through?

Economist Thomas Sowell would put it like this: My time is a finite resource that has alternative uses. Why am I using it like this?

And while our first reaction may be to buck up and throw a flag (“Disrespectful remark…five yards, loss of down!”), we should instead join them in their thinking. Why am I teaching this lesson? How does it figure into the unit of instruction? What skills or capacities should kids expect to gain from this experience?

I’ve heard kids ask me “why do we need to learn this?” for years. But I wasn’t listening. I didn’t realize that they were asking the question that, until recent years, I never thought to ask myself.

That’s something I should think about.