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Legend: Madame de Gaulle once made an embarrassing quip by mispronouncing the word 'happiness.'
Lunching with English friends at the time of her husband's retirement, Madame de Gaulle was asked what she was looking forward to in the years ahead. "A penis," she replied without hesitation. The embarrassed silence that followed was finally broken by the former president. "My dear," he murmured, "I think the English don't pronounce the word quite like that. It's 'appiness.'"
[Collected on the Internet, 2001]
When Charles deGaulle decided to retire from public life, the American ambassador and his wife threw a gala dinner party in his honor. At the dinner table the Ambassador's wife was talking with Madame de Gaulle.
"Your husband has been such a prominent public figure, such a presence on the French and International scene for so many years! How quiet retirement will seem in comparison. What are you most looking forward to in these retirement years?"
"A penis," replied Madame de Gaulle.
A huge hush fell over the table. Everyone heard her answer . . . and
no one knew what to say next.
Finally, Le Grand Charles leaned over to his wife and said, "Ma cherie, I believe zee Americans pronounce zat word 'appiness.'"
Origins: An anecdote similar to this one was probably as inevitable as puns that play on the homophony of the words "seaman" and "semen," such as the rumor that has long dogged the animated British children's TV show Captain Pugwash.
- This exchange is frequently said to have taken place between Madame de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan or his wife, Lady Dorothy Macmillan.
- One variant has Harold Macmillan, not understanding that Madame de Gaulle meant to say the word "happiness," responding with "Well, yes, not much time for that now."
Is the anecdote true? Although it turns up in some "respectable" collections such as Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes, it has the hallmarks of an urban legend: it always appears unsourced, in multiple versions which differ in details and offer little in the way of specificity. Perhaps its attribution to Madame de Gaulle was a subtle jab at her husband, who as the French leader exhibited a strong-mindedness that often put him at loggerheads with the heads of English-speaking Britain and America.
Similars bits of humor playing on unfortunate orthographic confusion involve an opera singer and a warning sign placed on a printer.
Sightings: Look for this tale (minus Mme. Degaulle) in the 1993 film The Beverly Hillbillies.
Last updated: 1 March 2005
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- Fadiman, Clifton. Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes.
- Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. ISBN 0-316-08267-8 (pp. 160-161).
- Sydney Morning Herald. "A Protester's Best Friend."
- 2 May 2001 (p. 24).
Also told in:
- Parris, Matthew and Phil Mason. Read My Lips.
- Robson Books, 1996. ISBN 1-861-05043-7.
- Sherrin, Ned. Ned Sherrin in His Anecdotage.
- Virgin, 1994. ISBN 0-863-69678-3.
- Williams, Kenneth. The Kenneth Williams Diaries.
- HarperCollins, 1993. ISBN 0-006-38090-5.