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How to Spruce Up Your Christmas Letter

December 3, 2012

It’s that time of year.  Christmas letter time. We don’t send a Christmas letter, largely because of the paucity of content such a letter would have. But we love getting letters from friends and acquaintances to find out what’s new with them.

Most of the letters we get pretty much stick to basic facts but every year there are one or two that really go over the top and make you think that you lead a very boring and pedestrian life.  I was speculating on how those letters might look this year and what the writers might do to try to impress.

Of course they could manufacture some interesting material about being abducted by aliens or meeting celebrities, but the secret to a good Christmas letter is not making stuff up but rather making run of the mill stuff sound interesting.  And what better way to give the mundane a whiff of the esoteric by sprinkling in a few foreign phrases!

So in case any of your friends decide to go all foreign in their Christmas letters, here is a short glossary of frequently used terms along with possible uses.

Force majeure—French for superior force.  You may have seen this phrase in your insurance policies.  It means something beyond your control and not the result of negligence (i.e., a war or an act of God).  Your friend may inform you:  “I so wanted to go to the Riviera for vacation this year, but Chloe’s insistence on going to Disneyland proved to be a force majeure.”

Amour-propre—It’s complicated, but this French phrase essentially means self-love.  “The fact that no one has unfriended her on Facebook has definitely bolstered Chloe’s amour-propre.”

Sui generis—In Latin this means “of its own kind,” and is used to mean unique.  “Skip was promoted to executive vice president this year and I helped decorate his new office.  I mean it just had to be sui generis.”

Faute de mieux—In French this means “lack of better,” and you use it instead of “for lack of anything better.”  How about “Skip got his bonus and faute de mieux we bought his and her Porsches.”

two porsches

Comme il faut—French for “as is required by standards.” You shouldn’t be surprised when they tell you “We flew Chloe and her best friend to Europe this summer and comme il faut, they went first class.”

Bete noire—French for “black beast.”  It means something dreadful, repulsive or disgusting.  “The neighbors insist on parking their Hyundai in the driveway.  It’s become my bête noire.”

Sine qua non—Literally “without which not,” this has come to mean an essential element.  “Chloe has advised us that breast augmentation surgery is a sine qua non for her to be ready for high school.”

Mutatis mutandis—Latin for “things being changed that have to be changed,” it is used to mean “with the necessary changes.”  “Our new yacht didn’t have a sauna or a game room, but mutatis mutandis, we should be able to enjoy ourselves on it.”

Peine forte et dure—French for strong, hard punishment, torture.  “In Gstaad, the chalet was overbooked and we didn’t get the Penthouse suite.  The Tower suite was pure peine forte et dure!”


Nostalgie de la boue–A wonderful French term which literally means “longing for the mud.”  It has come to mean a desire for the lowly or disgusting.  “In a fit of nostalgie de la Boue, we took a drive through the old neighborhood.”


So now you will be prepared when your sui generis friends decide to subject you to the peine forte et dure of the force majeure of their amour-propre.  Be understanding.  As far as they are concerned, the letter is comme il faut and a holiday sine qua non.  But if you’re like me, faute de mieux you could become a bete noire by sending them a similar letter, mutatis mutandis in which you focus on your nostalgie de la boue.  Have fun.  Or should I say, amusez-vous!

22 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2012 11:58 pm

    I’ve never heard the term “Christmas letter.” I’ve only heard “Christmas card.”

    This sentence I don’t understand:

    “Skip got his bonus and faute de mieux we bought his and her Porsches.”

    If it was Skip who got the bonus, why are we buying Porsches? And whose Porsches? His and her who?

    • December 6, 2012 9:59 pm

      Allow me to reach across the cultural divide! A Christmas letter is an insert into a Christmas card intended to provide additional background on what the sender has been doing over the past year. Sometimes they can be very long with lots of “don’t you wish you were me” sorts of stuff. My hypothetical letter was written by the spouse of Skip. The presumption is that they are so wealthy they couldn’t figure out what to do with the bonus money and it was sufficient to buy two Porsches, one for the hubby and one for the wife, faute de mieux!

      • December 6, 2012 11:54 pm

        I’m still confused by the “his and her.”

        • December 7, 2012 10:04 pm

          It means one for each spouse as in “his and her” walk in closets (or Porsches)

          • December 8, 2012 2:12 am

            Ah, so it’s an expression I’d been unfamiliar with. I thought “his and her” referred to the unidentified previous owners of the Porsches.

            • December 8, 2012 8:34 am

              Ahh, you were reading it as “we bought the Porsches of him and her!”

  2. Snoring Dog Studio permalink
    December 4, 2012 12:12 am

    Hilarious! And thank you for the much needed phrases and words. You’ve almost made me want to write a Christmas letter this year, however, I’m not sure that any foreign phrases could catapult my dull life to something envied!

  3. December 4, 2012 1:20 am

    Interesting how French, despite its total débacle worldwide vis-à-vi English, still sounds élégant. The reason is probably due to its role of cultured lingua franca in the 19th century (while English was the lingua franca of commerce: now it is lingua franca in all domains). The first time I realised how French words were used within English sentences as embellishments was during the first phase of my blogging experience, in 2007, when my readers were for some strange but pleasant reason mostly Indian from the subcontinent. A certain Ashish, especially, used French with great sense of humour, and called himself btw ‘Le Empereur’.

  4. December 4, 2012 4:10 am

    Btw, I have downloaded your ‘Identities’ novel with my Kindle software on my tablet today. I’ll take my time reading it.

    • December 6, 2012 10:01 pm

      Thanks! I hope you enjoy it and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  5. December 4, 2012 2:16 pm

    I have always adored the phrase *nostalgie de la boue*. It describes the convolutions of half the people I have known in my life… sigh.

    • December 6, 2012 10:02 pm

      It is definitely under used but unfortunately not under applicable!

  6. December 4, 2012 11:13 pm

    Fie, you chided me for using “amour propre” and here you are flinging it about. There is no finer phrase when applied to just the right person to have one sniggering for hours. Something about the way the French pull up short and swallow the final sound.

    Cacked at this .. “Chloe has advised us that breast augmentation surgery is a sine qua non for her to be ready for high school.”

    • December 6, 2012 10:06 pm

      I wasn’t chiding! I was expressing approbation. I should have said, “In addition to,” rather than “aside from.”

      I think a whole post about Chloe might be fun to do.

  7. December 6, 2012 2:51 am

    Merci mon ami

  8. December 6, 2012 10:07 pm

    De nada!

  9. December 8, 2012 12:32 pm

    How about a Christmas letter with German phrases next year, using “blitzkrieg,” “weltschmerz,” “lebensraum,” and “ubermensch”? (Hope I’m getting those right!)

  10. December 9, 2012 6:33 pm

    Brilliant idea and consider it [to be] done. I’ve already come up with some sample sentences about Chloe’s dating life that will use those words–plus “verboten,” schadenfreude” and “Gotterdammerung!”.

  11. December 9, 2012 10:55 pm

    🙂 excellent Thomas. Your blogs always bring a smile to my face….your wirting is… sui generis 🙂 Have a wonderful Christmas, I hope nobody parks their bete noire in your driveway! I wonder what hyundai would make of being associated with the term ‘black beast’!!

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