Too Much French Vocabulary Is the Haute of Hauteur

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to the longstanding political and social influence of France on what is now the United Kingdom, French and its dialects have had a significant impact on the English language. Linguists estimate that nearly one-third of English words are derived from French, and though some are more efficient or evocative in meaning than words that evolved from Old English, terms that ostentatiously signal their place of origin should be used in moderation.

Many words we take for granted stem from French, among them some of the terms most closely associated with the United States, such as equality, justice, and liberty. However, Gallicisms, expressions and idioms clearly identifiable as French (though they often have become naturalized citizens in English), are also numerous.

For example, many speakers of American English use one or more phrases beginning with the French word for good: “bon appetit” (literally “good appetite,” meaning “enjoy your meal”), “bon mot” (literally “good piece,” meaning “witty remark”), “bon vivant” (literally “good liver,” meaning “one who lives well”), and “bon voyage” (literally, “good journey,” meaning “enjoy your trip”). The first and last are universally familiar, but “bon mot” and “bon vivant” are less widely known.

And although most well-educated people understand what a coup de grace is, it would be considered pretentious to write of a coup de foudre (literally, “strike of thunder,” meaning “love at first sight”), a coup de maitre (literally, “stroke of the master,” meaning “masterstroke”), a coup de theatre (literally, “stroke of theater,” meaning “dramatic turn of events”), or a coup d’oeil (literally, “strike of the eye,” meaning “glance”).

Likewise, many other French terms may be at best vaguely familiar to readers, and though readers may not mind going to the dictionary once or twice, writers should be cautious about annoying them by lacing their work with too many words or phrases such as habitué (“one who frequents a place”), “idée fixe” (“obsession”), louche (“questionable, or arousing suspicion”), and manque (“failure”).

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8 Responses to “Too Much French Vocabulary Is the Haute of Hauteur”

  • Stephen

    I recently watched an internet video in which the speaker referred to “a raison d’être, or reason for being”. I just wanted to shout “If you didn’t think your audience would understand the term, you shouldn’t have used it”. How hard would it have been to say “purpose” instead?

  • Julie Link

    Although I am an avid Francophile, I agree that overuse of any foreign terms can be off-putting. Without being obnoxious, I would like to point out that “mot” is French for “word,” not “piece.” “Good word” is a literal translation of “bon mot.”

    I enjoyed the article. “Bien fait, comme toujours.” 😉

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, I cannot agree more with this article by Mr. Nichol and the follow-up comment by Stephen.
    My common comments are “Say things in Plain English,” and “Write things in Plain English,” where I have capitalized “Plain English” deliberately and for good reasons.

    The French phrase that Stephen use reminded me of an event from my own life. While I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, one of my classmates and friends was from the town of Statesboro, Georgia. I asked him, “What is the reason for being of Statesboro, Georgia.” My friend had no idea, even though he had been born and raised there. Very odd.

    I had to look it up in an encyclopedia. Statesboro is the home of the Georgia Southern University, a large state university that does not have an engineering school. Statesboro is also the county seat of Bulloch County. Well, well. At one time, Statesboro was at the center of a region of Georgia where they grew a lot of tobacco.

    I always knew the reason for being for the cities and towns where I lived. For example, I went to high school in Montgomery, Alabama, and Montgomery is the state capital of Alabama. Also, back in the bad old days of slavery and cotton plantations, Montgomery was an important riverport on the Alabama River for exports and imports.

    When I lived in Atlanta, that was a big city that had grown up around important railroad junctions. Then in 1868, Atlanta became the capital of Georgia – mostly because of its access to a lot of railroad transportation. Legislators could travel to and from Atlanta by train for the sessions of the state legislature. Later on, Atlanta became a huge highways junction for Federal highways, and nowadays it contains the intersections of Interstate 20, I-75, and I-85. There is industry in Atlanta, too. Likewise, Chicago grew up in a place that is an important junction for water, railroad, and highway transportation, and Chicago became a huge industrial city, too.

    I say that if you are going to be anywhere, you should be aware of why there is any “there” there.

  • RobinC

    Literally translated, mot means word.
    It is particularly annoying when a writer will suddenly insert a couple of phrases or more in French, and leave the reader to be mystified or to translate them on google or the like.

  • kls

    Pretentious? Moi?

  • Jonathan Lewis

    I live in France and teach English for a living. Even though I speak French fluently and therefore understand French words and phrases used in English writing I do find it extremely annoying. I gave up on a book by Will Self after a couple of chapters for this reason – there was no justification to have so much French in an English book. Was the writer trying to prove his “culture générale”? Que de la merde, à mon avis…

  • thebluebird11

    First, let me say that I minored in French in college and also have generally tried to have a wide variety in my reading, so I am familiar with these words, literally and as idiomatic phrases, although I can’t think of a time that I have used them conversationally, and the main writing I do these days is email, so you can imagine that they don’t spring from my lips or keyboard on any regular basis.
    Second, let me apologize in advance because I don’t know how to punctuate the quotation marks, but I came to a dead halt when I read “bon vivant” (literally “good liver,”)–as you stated above. I thought, vivant=liver? I guess the medical connotation of liver–as in, that organ under your diaphragm–was what leapt to my mind first. It took me a few seconds to recover, after which I continued reading, went back to it again, and finally realized what you meant! I would bet that someone who really is a bon vivant probably doesn’t have a really good liver LOL

  • Stephen

    kls> You’ve made me recall another anecdote. Graham Norton was on ‘Just A Minute’ several years ago, when the subject (about which he had to talk for a minute without repetition, hesitation, deviation) was “Franglais”.

    His opening line:
    “My native language is Franglais, because my father was English and my mother was pretentious.”

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