Charlie, what happened to 'je m'appelle'?

Charlie, what happened to 'je m'appelle'?

Recent events have put me in the familiar position of explaining and translating French words for family and friends — and now, for readers, too.

As the reprehensible attacks in Paris begin to be analyzed, I’m left with a need for an explanation myself:

Why “je suis” — I am — Charlie?

One of the very first things I learned in French was how to introduce myself. Back in fourth grade, it was hard to grasp, but I was taught never to say “je suis Margaret” the way I would say “I am Margaret” in English. In French, even as a child, I was taught that the correct introduction was “je m’appelle Margaret” — literally, “I call myself Margaret.”

(Appeller, the verb “to call,” is the same as for calling on the telephone, and the m’ is the reflexive pronoun me before a vowel, fellow language lovers.)

So amid those first few awful days, my inner ecrivain (writer) was playing editor as I read those great signs at the rallies. Why not “Je m’appelle Charlie” on even one sign?

I thought it must have been a foreigner’s faulty memory — not mine, I mean. I’ve certainly spoken to enough people over the years who’ve said “I had French classes in school,” but then heard me speak French and demanded a translation. Over the years, I’ve learned not to reply to such demands with “But you said you spoke French!”  They said they had classes. They said nothing about results.

But when I saw a photo in the Chicago Tribune of L’Arc du Triomphe decorated with a sign, “Paris est Charlie,” I thought I’ve missed something. Surely it wasn’t just that “Paris s’appelle Charlie” would not fit as well on the arch.

I remember various teachers of French cautioning me that “to be” is stronger than “to call” when introducing oneself. Is that it?

Sometimes, as I’ve thought this over, a song has skipped through my mind, just long enough to identify it as the Beatles singing “Rocky Raccoon” —

“Her name was McGill,

and she called herself Lill,

but everyone knew her as Nancy.”

There’s a difference in name-calling for you!

I don’t have clear answers here, so I’m writing this partly in search of them. If you see anything on the origin of “je suis Charlie,” please let me know! Merci beaucoup!

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  • Thank you for a provocative post. I think the phrase transcends grammatical correctness.

    According to Wikipedia, the phrase originated on Twitter, by a French cartoonist.

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  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you for the research. I appreciate knowing the phrase's French origin, and I enjoy knowing that I have such erudite readers.

  • When you say "Je suis Charlie" you are really saying you are one with the magazine, and not identifying yourself by your own name.
    It's similar to (though not exactly like) saying "Je suis Americain".

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you... especially for the careful use of "similar to." Like Weather Girl, you're providing the understanding I was looking for when I wrote this piece.

  • My name is Charlie doesn't make sense if his name is Abdul.

    So, I go along with AW.

    The French are somewhat lucky that it isn't "Ich bin Karl," which doesn't mean the same as "Mein namen ist Karl." However, the way the Germans are in New Orleans and Strasbourg, they probably would be speaking French.

  • Thanks for the confirmation, Jack. As for the German, mein Deutsch ist nicht gut, so I'll take your word for it!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Better than my command of French, Korean, and Spanish, in the first case picked up from the CBC French service (ici Radio Canada) and in the other cases, obscure local TV channels.

  • Thank you.

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