Vis-à-vis Has More Than One Use

By Maeve Maddox

A French borrowing, vis-à-vis [VEEZ-uh-VEE] means literally, “face to face.”

Vis-à-vis as a noun
One meaning of vis-à-vis is “a political or diplomatic counterpart.” For example, a commenter in a Thai political forum refers to the US president as “Putin’s vis-a-vis in the White House.”

Other meanings for vis-à-vis as a noun include “dancing partner,” “person seated opposite,” “conversational partner,” etc. Here are examples:

“No”, replied his vis-a-vis, with a falling inflection…

The man looked suspicious, and exchanged glances with his vis-a-vis: both were middle-aged, and of the very middle class.

She did not wish to dance; she was faint—she had no vis-a-vis.

As a noun, vis-à-vis can also mean meeting, interview, or rendezvous:

Thus, a suitor having a discreet vis-a-vis with his beloved would cautiously ascertain her father’s whereabouts…

Vis-à-vis as an adverb
The literal meaning is implicit in the use of vis-à-vis as an adverb, like this example from a movie site:

All the star team’s dancing efforts are honeys. Miss Rogers in this one goes beyond the role of dancing vis-a-vis for Astaire and emerges as a corking stepper in her own right.

Note: This quotation uses for, but to and with are more common when the adverb takes a preposition: “dancing vis-a-vis to Astaire,” “seated vis-a-vis with her uncle.”

Here are two more examples of adverbial use:

Dancing vis-a-vis they again sidestepped and each position was repeated five or six times.

The design represents two females, seated, vis-a-vis, upon chairs without backs.

Vis-à-vis as an adjective
In cruising the Web for examples to use in this post, I came upon a Mercedes advertisement for the Ares Atelier, S Class XXL. The description boasts “Vis-a-vis first class seats.” These are seats arranged so that passengers face one another.

Vis-à-vis in corporate-speak
Vis-à-vis is frequently met in writing about government and business, in which the term is used to mean regarding, concerning, relating to, compared with, with respect to, or re. Here are examples of this usage:

History of US policy vis-a-vis Cuba inconsistent at best

That’s one of the reasons the President made the decision he made vis-a-vis US companies in the telecommunications area.

Moscow has visibly hardened its stance vis-a-vis the West even as President Vladimir Putin arrived in Milan late Thursday for the ASEM summit…

With the rise of Spender and Whitlam as dominant influences in the early 1950s, Australia’s policy became marked by an emphasis on the distinct nature of moral human rights vis-a-vis legal human rights.

Note: The OED, Merriam-Webster, and The Chicago Manual of Style all show vis-à-vis with the accent, but most of the examples I found were written without an accent. The expression is not italicized.

The use of vis-à-vis to mean “with respect to” seems to me to be an unnecessary obfuscation and waste of the “face-to-face” sense. Writers who desire to decorate their writing with a French expression that means “with regard to” or “in respect of,” can always fall back on apropos.

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3 Responses to “Vis-à-vis Has More Than One Use”

  • Andy Knoedler

    Sorry, but I have my mental blinkers and earplugs in place. The only use of vis-à-vis, as far as I’m concerned, is to mean “regarding.” I’ve never encountered a context where it suggested any of the other listed meanings and hope I never do.

  • thebluebird11

    I kind of second Andy’s motion…other uses mentioned here sound weird to me and IMHO it would be better to replace this foreign term with the specific English word(s) that will convey the message. It is so hoity-toity anyway to use this phrase; what novel purpose does it serve? Its literal meaning (face to face) is almost as short in English as it is in French. Nothing is gained by saying it in French.

  • venqax

    I have to agree for the most part with the other respondents. Regardless of its literal translation from French, I’ve never known vis-a-vis to mean, literally, “face to face” but always to mean “in regard to, or compared to.” But, at the same time, I have no problem with it being used in that literal sense, e.g. “vis-a-vis” seating or dancing. I do agree with the proposition, though, that using foreign phrases to express thing that are perfectly expressable in English is unnecessary and sometime just affected. Just saying “face to face seating” conveys precisely the same meaning as vis-a-vis in that sense, so why use French?

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