Céréales nourrissantes
February 7, 2006 4:45 PM   Subscribe

Who or what is the source for the expression "cereal box French", referring to the amount of French that Anglophone Canadians are exposed to?

Ever since I moved to Canada 3.5 years ago, I've heard people say they "only know French from cereal boxes". While I understand exactly what it refers to (the only French in places like Toronto is that on the bilingual food packaging) I suddenly wondered: Why cereal? Why does nobody ever say they speak "milk carton French" or "chips bag French"?

Who started using the reference to cereal boxes, and why did it stick?

I can't find it online, but it can't be too old. Not older than the bilingual consumer packaging law from 1974 which started bilingual packaging. I figured it must be something that originated in pop culture (TV?) and that people have started using as an expression.
posted by easternblot to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
Maybe because it's a standard idea in N. American culture that you sit and read the cereal box in the morning (especially for kids), for lack of a better thing to do? I used to read every single word on the cereal box, because some of it was entertaining and aimed at kids (ie, the back), and the rest simply because it was there. I have never read any other food packaging that meticulously.

That's what immediately comes to my mind, but I'm not Canadian, so I could be way off.
posted by teece at 5:00 PM on February 7, 2006

I figured it must be something that originated in pop culture (TV?) and that people have started using as an expression.

As with most of these "what's the origin of this phrase?" questions, I see no reason to assume this.
posted by jjg at 5:06 PM on February 7, 2006

Google search turned up cereal box German (French, Italian, and Spanish) in a ... cereal box. Whodathunkit:

posted by prcrstn8 at 5:08 PM on February 7, 2006

BC politician Bill Vander Zalm criticized bilingual cereal boxes, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
posted by russilwvong at 5:11 PM on February 7, 2006

I agree with Teece.

1. Cereal boxes are more likely than other food packages to sit on the table while you're eating.
2. Cereal boxes tend to (although not so much anymore) put English on one side of the box and French on the other. Many other products combine French and English on the same side, or don't so much have a side (eg. a can).
3. Sometimes your sister is reading the English side, so you have to decipher the French side.

Side note: In grocery stores in Winnipeg, the English side always faces out. When I was living in a bilingual neighbourhood in Ottawa, I was surprised at first to see the packages showing English or French pretty much at random, but fortunately my cereal box French had prepared me.

Another side note: I once had an American tourist ask me what my raisin soda tasted like.
posted by teg at 5:56 PM on February 7, 2006

I guess it could have started with cereal boxes simply being the only thing you read at the table, but I still think there was something else to have made it into such a common expression, and the Bill Vander Zalm comment could be what I was looking for. I tried to find his exact comment, but couldn't.

(And I was going to ask jjg how a recent expression could have started, if not through pop culture, but politics isn't very "pop", so that answers that question...)
posted by easternblot at 6:36 PM on February 7, 2006

I use the expression all the time.

And yeah, it's simply because growing up as an Anglophone Canadian, cereal boxes were the only food packaging that I looked at long enough when I was a kid to really let the French part register. Many people here mention cereal boxes with French on one side and English on the other, but my experience has been (at least with kids' sugar cereals) that French and English are combined on one side and that the really lame games (like the pathetic maze and ridiculous wordsearch) were on the other, also in both languages. The bonus being that we essentially got two word search puzzles more or less.

Since leaving school my French is terrible, but I sure as heck still know what "Gratuit!" means.

It's embarrassing that I'd be unable to ask for directions in French but that I can proudly say, "avec des guimauves!"
posted by Robot Johnny at 6:38 PM on February 7, 2006

I was going to ask jjg how a recent expression could have started, if not through pop culture

Before there was popular culture, there was plain old culture -- you know, the one individuals shared by talking to each other. That's where most of our idiomatic expressions come from, not handed down from on high by sitcom writers. The spread of language is much more organic than that.

Or, to put it another way, the phrase "cereal box French" took hold because of widespread familiarity with the experience it describes, not widespread familiarity with the source of the phrase.
posted by jjg at 7:24 PM on February 7, 2006

As a Canuck who learned cereal box french himself as a lad, I agree wholly with Teece. I didn't get a lick of French language education until high school, but I knew what a whole lot of product descriptions and ingredients meant, even as a young kid.

It is what it is. How else would a parent describe the French their kid knows, when it's obviously mostly from the cereal box? How else would I describe it?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:23 PM on February 7, 2006

Hé les enfants!
posted by tangerine at 9:38 PM on February 7, 2006

I think it also derives from the (misplaced) anger that a lot of English Canadians felt over official bilingualism way back when under Trudeau, the most visible sign of which, for most people, was French on their cereal boxes, staring them in the face every morning.
posted by Dasein at 9:55 PM on February 7, 2006

But without cereal box French, how would I know to bien agiter, servoir froid?

Okay, I totally cannot spell it. I also loves me some pamplemoose juice.
posted by Savannah at 10:07 PM on February 7, 2006

If you'll accept a derail, I used to beg my parents to cross the border so we could go to a grocery store in Windsor, and get some of those totally cool, nifty bilingual packages. My brother and I were so jealous, back in 1974, of our Canadian peers.

Yeah, we both took French in high school.
posted by QIbHom at 3:42 PM on February 8, 2006

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