I Must Say

She gives me la petite mort Why do some people insist on using French phrases in English? Like “noblesse oblige,” or “enfant terrible.” Just to make it clear, I’m aware that English derives a shit-bunch of words from French as well as a slew of other languages. But people who call themselves erudite and learned will drop a French phrase into their diatribes to make it sound more intelligent. As an example, here’s a sentence from a recent letter in Harper’s Magazine:

“Because her own veneration of the novel and literary criticism in the persons of Henry James and Trilling is on record, it’s hard not to see this as a cri de coeur.

Note that the author (or perhaps the editors of the magazine) italicized the words to emphasize that they aren’t in English. I ask, simply, why doesn’t the English phrase, “cry from the heart” (or similar) suffice? It’s as if, in my opinion, the author felt that by saying it in another language it makes her statement more profound. It pretends to be more erudite than it really is.

I hate this.

I hate this because I don’t speak French and I don’t carry a handy French phrase dictionary around with me. I hate this because I can’t see why an English phrase doesn’t suffice. I hate this because, to me, it is the ultimate in literary pretension. It says, “the language I am speaking is not complete enough to express my profound thoughts, and therefore I pull from my repertoire of ready-made foreign phrases to speak the profundity for me.”

If you can’t say it succinctly and profoundly in your own tongue then perhaps you are not as erudite as you like to pretend.

18 Replies to “I Must Say”

  1. It’s a holdover from when every educated person was expected to speak and read French fluently. I personally find it more annoying that in the U.S. we aren’t expected to learn more than one language fluently. Especially after travelling abroad and realizing that the majority of people have mastered at least two languages. Their native tongue and English.

  2. Mary, I think these are two separate issues. I believe, like you, that Americans should be expected and/or required to speak multiple languages. We are spoiled because we speak one of the linguas franca of the world and so aren’t required to learn others.

    You know, come to think of it, I was teaching ESL for a while at the public library. It was free to students. Why, then, can’t we have EsSL (Español as a Second Language) or FSL? If they had a free Spanish course, I’d most definitely go. That would be c’est magnifique!.

  3. I think they aren’t really separate issues because the fashion of peppering French phrases into discourse happened when knowing French was the expected thing for an educated person. We no longer expect someone to know French, but the remnant of fashion has remained. Now, in other countries, English is the language that is peppered into conversation.

  4. I tend to agree that unless it is something painstakingly obvious, like a phrase such as “creme de le creme,” English writers and journalists should stick to English. Even in that case, use an English catchphrase. It’s ridiculously cliche to try and spice up a piece with foreign catch-phrases.

  5. My fault with people who use the phrases is not that they speak two languages. More power to them. Hoorah.

    My fault is in seeing someone use a trite old non-English phrase as an attempt to seem erudite. Seriously, have you not cringed when someone used the word recherché?

  6. Seriously, have you not cringed when someone used the word recherché?

    Honestly, no. I’m not sure I even notice it, expect when it’s a word that I don’t know. And then it’s about as annoying as anytime I don’t know a word. I just go look it up.

    It’s ridiculously cliche to try and spice up a piece with foreign catch-phrases.

    But, where do you draw the line on what is and is not a common foreign phrase? Cliché is French, should I say “trite” or “over-used” instead? Switch “marionette” to “string-puppet?” How is one supposed to know which words someone else doesn’t know?

    Did you know there was a movement in the 1920s to pronounce ballet to rhyme with mallet? The reasoning was that it should be pronounced by English rules, since we are not French.

  7. It’s not about knowing or not knowing the language. I keep a dictionary handy too. I love words, and I love how the English language absorbs words from all tongues. I am also moderately able to understand spoken Spanish. What I don’t admire, is when people use French and Latin phrases simply to sound more erudite. They italicize the phrase to give it that Je ne sais quoi, but whenever I see it sounds to me more like I should gardez l’eau [watch out for the wastewater].

    So, to summarize, I’m not advocating a change of language, nor an Englishification of language, but, quite simply, I’m asking some writers to lower their noses (present company excluded of course).

  8. It is the italicization, I agree. It’s like drawing attention to the obvious. If you type cliche in italics, it automatically draws attention to that word and we start to ask is it necessary to use that word? I think it’s perfectly acceptible, as has been mentioned the continual evolution of the English language, being a mish-mash of many different cultures. It’s the purposeful drawing attention that burns, more than as Matthew says, the Englishification of language itself.

    To relate, when I was at University I had an English professor who couldn’t stand erudite flagwaving in his essays. The minute you got cocky and showed off, that was the minute he became overly critical of the entire work altogether. So when a writer draws attention to their own arrogance by using elitist language, they are really only flagwaving the insecurity in their overall idea.

  9. As a postgrad literature student, I come across this all the time, and yes, it can sometimes seem to be a “looky looky I speak french” pretensious affectation, however, mostly, the French is used because the particular phrase is not used in English. cri de coeur is a French “catchphrase” but crying of the heart is NOT an English one. They both mean the same thing, but at the same time they don’t, because the catchphrase signifies a specific mode of thought or interpretation.

  10. As a postgrad literature student, I come across this all the time, and yes, it can sometimes seem to be a “looky looky I speak french” pretensious affectation, however, mostly, the French is used because the particular phrase is not used in English. cri de coeur is a French “catchphrase” but crying of the heart is NOT an English one. They both mean the same thing, but at the same time they don’t, because the catchphrase signifies a specific mode of thought or interpretation.

  11. Sacre bleu! I disagree. As Mary points out, if you don’t know the meaning of a word or phrase, what’s wrong with looking it up in the dictionary? This is true of *any* word you don’t know. Many people might say that using the word “erudite” in your post sounds “pretentious”; instead of sending readers scrambling for a dictionary, why not dumb down your post by using more common words that people know, like “snobbish”? Personally, I think we should be raising standards and expanding our vocabulary, not limiting ourselves to “American apple-pie words.” To target words of foreign origin sounds like provincial Ameri-centric thinking to me. And as Matt Doyle points out, there’s usually a *reason* why these foreign phrases are hijacked: it’s because we don’t have a comparable phrase in English. For example, before a meal it’s not unusual to wish someone “bon apetit!” Why not speak English instead? Because English doesn’t have a comparable phrase. (“Good meal!” doesn’t exist). Spanish, in contrast, does have a comparable expression (“Buen provecho!”) so there’s no need for Spanish-speakers to import the French.

  12. Mercurio, you may have missed the point. It’s not about dumbing down your sentences. It’s not about Ameri-centric thinking. After all, our tongue is English, not American. It is about, as I said above, and Matt Doyle phrased, a “pretentious affectation.”

    I am not loathing them because they speak another language, nor that they pepper their sentences with words that may be unknown to me. I don’t know how clear I can be when I say I both value a multi-lingual world and the use of new/interesting/foreign words.

    It all depends on how you use them. When a foreign word or catch phrase is italicized and used in a specific context, especially one in which the author is trying to argue a point, I sometimes feel the phrase is the author’s attempt to elevate him/herself to a loftier literary position. Perhaps this is mere projection on my part and no such intention exists, but as a writer and one who is conscious of the usage of words, intentional haughtiness just makes me want to tear the page out of the book/magazine/website.

  13. When a foreign word or catch phrase is italicized…

    So, if a foreign word or phrase is not italicized it is less of an issue? Is it possible that the problem lies with the housestyle or copyeditor who decided to italicize the foreign phrase? I mean, I can be intentionally haughty with very short all-English words. For instance:

    Oh, come now. Must you be so silly?

    I am not at all serious, by the way. I think everyone is entitled to be annoyed by whatever they want. This just doesn’t happen to be a point that annoys me.

  14. Matt, I’m completely with you on this one. And there’s a difference between using a foreign language term that everyone knows like “bon appetit,” and using something like “cris de coeur,” which only a small number of people know. But I think the pretentious misuse of French phrases is a bit like porn. You can’t quite define when it’s annoying, but you know it when you read it.

    As for expanding our vocabulary through the use of less familiar words in writing, I respectfully disagree, Mercurio. As any linguist will tell you, languages evolve naturally and spontaneously through popular usage, not through top-down “education.” The words a writer selects to express an idea should, in my opinion, always be the most basic except where a less basic word is necessary to evoke a feeling, style, or mood. A writer should never use her writing to expand her audience’s vocabulary.

  15. Lauren, it’s never a good idea to go around saying what writers (or anyone) should and shouldn’t do if it’s not hurting anyone.

    What do you mean by “most basic” though? Am I supposed to “dumb down” my own extensive vocabulary if I am that sort of verbose writer? And if I am required to do so, aren’t I being just as affected as writers who “smart up” their writing with French phrases?

    It seems to me you are suggesting we should err on the side of philistinism.

  16. Matt D.: I think it’s all about the art of rhetoric. Know your audience. There are certain authors I admire who use simple, clean vocabulary where seldom I hit the dictionary. Others are rather verbose, sometimes dense and full of words I haven’t heard since the last International English Spelling Bee.

    I was never a fan of “use the simplest word when choosing what to say.” But writing is a form of communication after all, and you run the risk, when using more complicated language, of alienating some of your readers. How to choose your words then? I think it’s ultimately a matter of taste.

  17. You’d only be “dumbing down” by using basic words if fancier words were necessary for purposes other than expanding the vocabularies of your readers. Fancy words and phrases have their place but they automatically alienate people without fancy vocabularies. So if you’re going to use them, it should be for a good reason. Whoops, I just told writers what they should and shouldn’t do again. I’m very bossy that way.

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