At Least They Still
Speak French Here…
This stately edifice on the Left Bank of the Seine is the HQ of the Académie Française. If you listen closely on a quiet day, you can hear the ghost of Balzac groaning, “‘Spamme’? ‘Selphie’?”
Like any two developed countries active in the international arena, France and the United States maintain a balance of commercial trade. France gives the United States haute couture, cognac and Daft Punk, and the United States gives France iPads, pink-slime hamburgers and reruns of “The Simpsons.” So it’s about even.
And of course, as the old French nursery rhyme says, “Situations that prevail in the sphere of economics are often paralleled in the humanities, and more specifically in linguistics.”
Okay, so it kind of loses some of the poetry in translation, but the point is that France and the United States also maintain a balance of terminology tradeoffs. Except that these days it’s about as balanced as the competition in a Harlem Globetrotters game.
France gives the United States rarefied expressions like pied-à-terre, which hardly anyone can pronounce; mise en scène, which hardly anyone can define; and nom de plume, which isn’t even a French expression (coined in English, it’s unknown in France). And the United States, due to its arguably undeserved dominance in the tech sector and pop culture, gives France just about every new term that enters its vocabulary.
French society’s Roomba-like proclivity for sucking up English words is a well-known and much-lamented phenomenon. In the name of preserving the purity of the language, periodic efforts are made to stanch the flood, with varying degrees of success (usually around zero Kelvin — more on this below).
While researching, or rather “researching,” this article, I found a great many excellent discussions of the subject (one of the best being this piece on Slate.fr). However, I couldn’t help but notice: there are numerous studies on the topic of “English terms adopted into the French language” but surprisingly few studies on the topic of “English terms adopted into the French language that David Jaggard wants to make fun of.”
To fill that glaring gap, I have decided to compile:
The C’est Ironique Totally Unscientific, Nowhere Near Exhaustive Historical Survey of Cherry-Picked Anglicisms in French
Obviously, the transfer of words from one language to another is as old as human speech itself. The first linguistic borrowing no doubt took place in the very early Stone Age, within minutes of the first encounter between two unrelated tribes. And the first borrowed word was no doubt “Ow!”
So it’s impossible to know just when the French started diluting the purity of their language with English words, although one might say they were asking for it by invading England in 1066.
By 1067, virtually everyone in France had learned the English terms “Hastings,” “king,” “arrow,” “eye” and “ew, gross!” and the trend was launched.
Actually, at first the word flow across the Channel went mostly north: the English language absorbed thousands of French words brought in by the Norman conquerors. In fact, one of them was the word “Conqueror,” which happened to be their leader’s last name.
Over the next 850 years, a sprinkling of English terms wormed their way into French dictionaries, usually in adapted form, like rosbif, escalateur, overbooké and my absolute most favorite Frenchified word of all, bouledogue (isn’t that a beauty?).
But rampant Anglicization didn’t really take off until the 20th century, especially after World War II, when thousands of American soldiers swarmed across France. They brought with them a great many things that the French people eagerly embraced, which included themselves, but also little niceties like chewing gum, nylon stockings, the absence of Nazis and words like radar, damned (pronounced “dahm-ned”), salvarsan and my absolute second most favorite Frenchified word of all, talkie-walkie (French priorities…).
After that, the United States largely took over the Anglophonic export business, although it got a sizable boost from Liverpool in the early 1960s. For example, before the Beatles, no one in France was named Michelle.
By the 1970s, the situation was getting out of hand. The use of Anglicisms in French was still far from the levels seen today (as explained in a recent exposé by a very close relative of mine) but high enough that the authorities were moved to take action.
In this case, “authorities” means the Académie Française, the highly esteemed body of men and women of letters that serves as the official ouatchdogue of the French language. And “take action” means releasing lists of foreign neologisms to be avoided, accompanied by recommended French substitutes. Like this post on its website, which proposes a French term for “hashtag”: mot-dièse — literally “word-musical-sharp-sign.” It sounds better in French. But not a lot better.
Like the Libertarian Party, the U.S. national soccer team and most of the guys on Tinder, the Académie has to content itself with a few occasional small victories. But it does win once in a while.
A case in point: when I first moved to Paris in the early 1980s, home computers were just starting to take their place alongside food, sex and oxygen on the list of life’s must-haves. And the terms that everyone in France used for “computer,” “hardware” and “software” were, respectively, “computer,” “hardware” and “software.”
Then, in about 1983, the Académie announced that these words should be replaced with Franco-equivalents as follows: ordinateur (“thing that puts things in order”), matériel (an already common word for “equipment”) and logiciel (which I suspect they made up just to mess with us).
I remember thinking that this was a noble endeavor but doomed to failure. And being surprised when everyone, presumably out of respect for the Académie members, admiration for their efforts and envy of their nifty jackets, instantly adopted the new words.
Perhaps overly confident due to the Académie’s early success in Geekspeak, in 1994, Culture Minister Jacques Toubon went on a Francophilic crusade, sponsoring a law conceived to limit the public’s exposure to English in the media and compiling a list of French replacements for common Anglicisms.
None of his terms caught on, essentially due to their being about as plausible as a Simpsons plot, for example vacancelle (“vacation-ette”) for “weekend” and (brace yourselves) styliqueur for “designer.”
One word that he didn’t decry, but should have, is my nomination for the most heinous, ludicrous Franglicization ever to plague the country. I’m sure that other Anglophones who had to suffer through its period of prominence will agree with me. I refer, of course, to “pin’s.”
Since it makes me shudder just to think of this monstrosity, I’ll try to explain it as fast as possible to get it over with:
There was a fad in the mid-1990s for collecting colorful enamel lapel pins, but there was no French word for “pin” so they commandeered the English word but pin in French means “pine tree” and the “n” isn’t pronounced and adding an “e” to solve that problem turned it into a slang word for male genitalia so they used the plural but had to add an illogical apostrophe so it wouldn’t look like “pine trees” which is pronounced exactly like “pine tree” and this meant that pin’s became both the plural and the singular.
“Le pin’s.” “Un pin’s.” Yuck. Fortunately, the “peenz” craze eventually died out. Unlike the unwarranted French fondness for English words ending with -ing. Since it makes me snicker just to think of this usage, I’ll try to explain it as elaborately as possible:
Perhaps because, like men vis-à-vis female breasts, they don’t have any of their own, the French seem to have developed a fixation for English gerunds. They love nothing better than to grab a verb from the OED, slap an “ing” on it and then ignore its original meaning altogether.
Whenever you see a string of letters in French ending with “ing,” it’s always derived from, but never has the same meaning as, an English word. Consider these examples:
A parking is a parking lot, a camping is a campground, a dancing is a dance hall, a karting is a go-kart track, a living is a living room, a lifting is a facelift, a pressing is a dry-cleaning shop, a brushing is (no kidding) a blow-dry treatment, a smoking is (still not kidding) a tuxedo, a kidding is (kidding) a goat farm… And the listing goes on.
And so does this article: after the turn of the century, English words began flooding into France by the double-decker busload along the Information Highway. L’Internet, le web, cookie, tweet (often misspelled “twit”), flaming (yes it’s a noun), e-mail (usually shortened to mail despite the necessity of the “e” prefix) and Nigerian bank scam all rapidly came into everyday use.
That may have been the lightweight, seemingly insignificant thing that caused the desert pack animal to collapse with a life-threatening spinal injury.
I say this for two reasons. One: because I’m a hopeless wisenheimer. And two, because last month the current Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, announced that the French language should no longer resist the influence of English. It looks like all this Anglo-erosion is going to continue to accelerate.
The only question left is “How fast?” Well, that and “Is there a God?” But let’s stick with “How fast?”
A book published in 1964 lamented the evolution of “franglais” at a time when the number of English loan words in the French vocabulary was estimated at five percent. Thirty years later, at the time of the Toubon campaign, a linguist at the Collège de France put the figure at 10 percent.
If both sources are correct, and indicative, that means that the proportion of English transplants doubles every 30 years. By 2024, it will reach 20 percent, then 40 percent by 2054, and so on. At that rate, by the turn of the next century, French will just be English with a seductive accent.
So, to my fellow Americans who complain that le français is hard to learn, all I can say is: stick around. Or should I say “collez autour”?
Important note! In keeping with my policy of equal ridicule for all, I plan to write another article about the abuses of borrowed French terminology in American English. Readers’ suggestions (send to email@example.com) are welcome.
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is now available on Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.
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