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False friends: versatile



Under the effect of a mysterious linguistic drift, some words end up occupying very different semantic territories in French and English. Versatile is one of them. While a versatile employee is highly desirable, un patron versatile is every worker's nightmare!


In English, versatile means "able to switch easily between different activities" – not unlike the bodhisattva Kannon (or Guanyin, pictured above), whose thousand arms, each wielding a different symbolic implement, make her the go-to deity of the Buddhist pantheon. The correct translation in French is polyvalent.


Versatility is a highly desirable attribute in this age of agile companies scrambling to dominate ever-narrowing niches, where a skill for adaptability is one of our few remaining defences against obsolescence or unemployment. The same quality can be attributed to objects; hence the timeless popularity of the versatile LBD (little black dress), which does double duty as work uniform before the cocktail hour and evening wear after.


Whereas the English meaning of the word emphasises the positive aspects of change, the French dwells on its flip side: inconstancy and capriciousness. Une personne versatile is fickle, a weathervane, changing his or her mind on a whim - a nightmare to work for, if he or she happens to be your boss.


In politics, it is the ultimate insult: un homme politique versatile is guilty of switching party allegiances, crossing the aisle to vote with the opposition, or flip-flopping on the issues, supporting a position he once virulently opposed, while bending backwards to argue that the two contradictory views are perfectly congruent.


President-elect Trump's recent u-turn on several of his main campaign promises, from the repeal of Obamacare to the building of a border wall, shows him to be versatile in the negative, French sense of the term; it sometimes seems like his opinions are dictated by the last person he spoke to, including when that person is a president he spent the past years reviling. Conversely, one wonders whether, at age 70, he has the versatility necessary to start a new career in which, for the first time in his life, he will be not the boss but an employee: a servant of the people, subject to their fickle whims.


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Viviane Lowe

traduction + communication