French Words for Writers

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Here are some French words and expressions of special use to writers.

auteur theory
This term has come into use from the writings of French film critics. The “auteur” is the director and the film is interpreted in relation to that director’s personality and personal view of the world. Such criticism usually compares the film being analyzed to other films by the same director.

belles-lettres (beautiful literature)
Since in current usage the word “literature” is used for everything from Moby Dick to publicity flyers, the term belles-lettres is useful when one wishes to differentiate between lasting literary works, as opposed to writing of a more ephemeral or prosaic nature.

As a noun, a critique is a critical examination of a work according to some set of standards, with an intention of defining it and assessing its worth. A critique goes into more depth than a review. In English critique can also be used as verb: My assignment is to critique “Cargoes” by John Masefield.

dénouement (unknotting/untying)
The dénouement is that part of a mystery story in which the solution is presented and the missing details provided. It follows the climax and heralds the end.

film noir (black film)
This term was coined by French film critic Nino Frank to refer to a type of crime film of the 1940’s. Prime examples: The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Touch of Evil. A few non-crime films are also classed as film noir, for example: Blood on the Moon (western), and The Lost Weekend (a film about alcoholism). What they have in common is that most were filmed in black and white with the camera held at odd angles. They make use of voice-over narration. Lighting is dark and forbidding, and the nature of the story is depressing. More recently, the television series Twin Peaks has been called “soap noir.”

nom de plume (pen name)
Although “nom de plume” is an expression made up of French words, it was probably coined by English speakers on the model of the French expression nom de guerre (war name) which already has the meaning “fictitious name.” Everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was the nom de plume or nom de guerre of Samuel Clemens.

The French got this word from an Italian word meaning “pie.” A pastiche is a parody or literary imitation, usually written with the intention to ridicule, but it sometimes results from too great an admiration for another author. Parodies are usually of short-lived interest or amusement, but sometimes a pastiche turns out to have lasting entertainment value. Alexander Pope’s long poem The Rape of the Lock is a pastiche of the heroic epic and is still funny to anyone who has read the Iliad. Likewise the film Galaxy Quest is hilarious to anyone brought up on the original StarTrek television series.

précis (from French word for “precise”)
A précis is an abstract of the essential facts of a work, presented in the same order they appear in the original. This is different from a summary which may present the essential information in a different order.

roman à clef (“novel requiring a key”)
The word “roman” in this expression is French for “novel.” In this kind of novel the fictional characters and events represent real persons and events. Primary Colors (about Bill Clinton) and Postcards from the Edge (about people in Carrie Fisher’s life) are romans à clef.

RSVP (please reply)
Everybody knows that RSVP on an invitation is a request for the persons invited to tell the host if they will in fact attend the function. I’ve seen invitations that say “Please RSVP.” The abbreviation RSVP stands for Répondez s’il vous plaît. The “s’il vous plaît” is the equivalent of “please.” RSVP is all that’s needed.

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7 thoughts on “French Words for Writers”

  1. I think “RSVP” is way beyond carrying with it the “please” inference. This has evolved to the point that RSVP really means “let us know whether you are coming” – not “Please let us know whether you are coming”. No one’s going to balk at the phrase “Please RSVP…”.
    Don’t you hate it when the wrong evolves to being right? It used to be wrong to say “He dove into the pool”. It used to be wrong to pronounce the “t” in “Often”. But I see they are standard now.

  2. Zack,
    Food was hors de mon thème (outside my theme), which was terms to do with the actual writing we do. But I’m with you–writers need their food — and since some of us eat while writing, why not include hors d’oeuvres?!

  3. Tom,
    Whether or not people are bothered by “Please RSVP” probably depends upon who receives the invitation. Anyone aware of what the letters stand for will see the “Please” as redundant. Those who think of RSVP as merely “let is know whether you are coming” won’t be bothered by the English “please” attached. “Please RSVP” will probably prevail.

    I’d guess that “dove” has been around longer than “dived.” At least “dove” is closer to the Old English past for dyfan (to dive) than “dived.” I grew up saying “dove” and still do.

    H.W. Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1963 ed.) has some very harsh words for people who pronounce the “t” in often. I think we’re going to see a lot more words change pronunciation to match the letters in them.

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