The joys of Swenglish

Swiss retailers seems to love the English language. So why do they insist on mangling it?

"Feel" range of underpants on sale in Migros, VerbierYou have pulled that guy you have been fancying from a distance. What’s it going to be like? Will this be just a fling, or something so good you want it to last forever? Will he be an expert lovemaker, a man of sensitivity and stamina, or are you in for a disappointment?

Such thoughts may be running through your head as you disrobe your new catch. Now, my question is this: would your expectations be influenced by any slogans embossed on his underpants? If he bought his briefs (95 per cent organic cotton, £7 each) at the Coop in Verbier – or indeed any other Swiss branch of the supermarket – you would be faced with the words “high speed”. How does that make you feel?

Quite why the Swiss opt for our language for slogans on undies is a mystery. I can, however, see the appeal of English in general. With four linguistic communities (German, French, Italian and Romansh) tolerating each other peacefully in a tiny country, opting for the unofficial fifth language is a good way of offending all parties equally: a classic Swiss compromise.

"I am" line of toiletries on sale in Migros, VerbierAt the ski resort of Verbier, however, English seems to be very much the second language – and in many of the bars and clubs, the first. You quickly notice that it’s a pretty posh variety: cut-glass accents abound, even among the 18-year-old seasonaires, and you’ll rarely be in a cable car for more than a minute without hearing the words “Oh ya, absolutely.”

But why the linguistic link with underpants? You see it too at Migros, the largest supermarket in town, where the undies in a budget pack (five for £8.80) each carry the same word on the front, but in a different colour: “feel”. Is that an order? Or a suggestion for how to enjoy your new purchase? The message cannot be aimed at the wearer: the lettering is the wrong way up. Or is it an invitation to well-wishers? As a set of instructions, at least it is admirably concise.

Paying a lot more – for example, £4.70 for a single pair at Migros – does not, paradoxically, buy you a more upmarket message. Walking round with the words MENS BASIC embossed on the front of your undies won’t do a Stick'Up deodorant on sale in Migros, Verbierworld of good for your self-esteem, and could well alienate someone who might have been quite happy to separate you from your clothing. And if you happen to have pulled a pedant for punctuation – well, you’ve really blown it.

To be fair to the Swiss, I would prefer any of the above to the words that adorn many a fashionista’s undergarment back in the UK. Do you really want the name of a revolutionary theologian, the originator of the doctrine of total depravity, on your pants? And why brand yourself “klein” – a word that, in the language of the father of psychoanalysis and coiner of the catchy phrase “penis envy”, means “small”?

Another section of Migros where English is favoured is among the bathroom products. Which you might think odd: surely this famously spotless country, in which cleanliness is rated alongside godliness, can hold its own internationally on the personal hygiene front? Still, Migros’ own-brand range of shampoos, shower gels and soaps is labelled “I am”. Is this an affirmation of national identity, a Swiss take on Descartes’ dictum: I wash therefore I am?

"Oyaya" condoms for sale at a dispenser at a mountain restaurant, VerbierSometimes the Swiss zeal to purge the world of dirt can go a little far. By all means try to eliminate odours where they originate, but I am surprised that anyone should want to call an air freshener “STICK’UP” – which naturally begs the question “Where?”

Perhaps the most intriguing brand name I have come across in Verbier is that of the condoms sold from dispensers in the men’s lavatories at self-service restaurants high up in the ski area: Oyaya. Is this what posh chalet girls exclaim when they’re having a good time?