Reader Piqued By French Mutilations

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Mari, one of our readers, writes:

Perhaps…you could address a problem that seems to have reached epidemic proportions: the difference between pique, peek and peak. Recently I have been inundated with people giving ‘sneak peaks’ and having their curiosity ‘peeked’.

I pointed out the “peak” for “peek” spelling myself in an earlier article. It’s an easy mistake to make since ee and ea are alternate English spellings for the long e sound.

Misspelling the French word pique is a shame since it looks so cool. And there’s not much excuse for doing so. English writers don’t seem to have any trouble with the word unique which is spelled according to the same pattern.

Mari is also troubled by the cutesy spelling of French Voilà as “Walla.”

while you’re at it, perhaps you would add ‘Voila’ … I might be forced to blind myself if I see ‘Walla’ again.

I suppose that people who write Voilà as “walla” may feel it’s closer to the French pronunciation, but even if it were, which it isn’t that much, the weird spelling “walla” is confusing. It makes me think of “wallah” as in “laundry wallah.”

When I googled “walla,” I discovered that the word actually has meanings.

Walla is radio broadcasting jargon for a sound effect imitating the murmur of a crowd in the background.

The word walla is a way of swearing by God in Arabic.

Walla! is an Israeli internet news portal, search engine, and email service provider.

While we’re on the subject of mutilations of French expressions, here’s one that gets me.

chaise longue – a chair that holds up the sitter’s legs; a deck chair

Americans long ago changed the longue, meaning “long,” to lounge, since that is what one does on such a chair.

Chaise lounge no longer bothers me, but I do have expectations regarding the pronunciation of chaise, My preferred pronunciation is /shez/, but I’ll even settle for /chaiz/.

The fingernail scraped the blackboard, however, when I watched a Wal-mart television ad for lawn furniture the other evening. The cheery salesman wanted to sell his customer a “chase lounge.”

Here are a few other French words and expressions that should be written or spoken with care.

chic /sheek/ stylish
coup de grâce /ku də grahs/ (literally “mercy blow”) – killing a wounded creature to end its suffering.
déjà vu /day jah voo/ (literally, “already seen”) – the feeling that one is experiencing an event that has happened previously. It is NOT amusing when people say “déjà vu all over again.”
faux /foe/ (false) jewelers often advertise “faux pearls.” Copywriters must take care not to write ads offering “genuine faux pearls.”
fiancé /fee ahn say/ man engaged to be married
fiancée /fee ahn say/ woman engaged to be married
hors d’oeuvre /or derve/ (literally “out of” or “apart from the work, i.e., the main course”) Thought: People who write “walla” for voilà probably say /hors duvers/ for hors d’oeuvres.
risqué /ris kay/ off-color, naughty, as in a risqué joke.
RSVP (abbreviation for Répondez s’il vous plaît, “Reply if it pleases you”) Added to invitations for which the host wishes to know if the guest is coming or not. “Please RSVP” is redundant, but common.
vis-à-vis /vee zah vee/ (literally “face to face”) The French meaning was once more common in English than it is now. Dancers were said to dance vis-à-vis. There was a style of horse-drawn coach called a vis-à-vis in which passengers sat facing one another. Now, however, vis-à-vis is used more often to mean “in relation to” as in these headlines:

Senior Citizens vis – a- vis the Indian Society
Vietnam vis a vis Iraq in Congressional Debate–Lessons Learned? Or Biases Deeply Ingrained?

The headlines also illustrate the various ways that vis-à-vis is written in English.

Voilà! /vwah lah/ (“There it is!”) If you decide to eschew the “walla” spelling, take a close look at the vowels and the direction of the accent mark. Don’t write “voilá” or “violà.”
voir dire /vwar deer/ (literally “to see to say”) a legal term you’ve probably heard on Law and Order. It refers to jury selection.

So, spice up your speech and writing with French words and expressions. Just don’t mutilate them when you do.

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13 thoughts on “Reader Piqued By French Mutilations”

  1. That “déjà vu all over again” is said to be a Yogi Berra-ism, along with many more, such as, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it,” and “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

    Yogi also once said, though, that “I didn’t really say everything I said.”

  2. “Deja vu all over again” truly irritates me. The only time it would actually make sense is if a person was experiencing deja vu for the 2nd time, meaning he felt like he had the experience of an event 3 times. And you know no one means it like that.

    I didn’t know about fiance and fiancee. It’s nice to learn something new.

  3. I find it edifying that you would want to educate your readers about the correct use and pronunciation of French words and phrases. However, it’s a shame how poor many of the approximative English pronunciations are. E.g. it is a common error for English speakers to pronounce the “é”(as in “fiancé”) as “ay” (as in “day”). Instead, this sound is much more like the “ea” in “read”(past tense), the “e” in “bed” or the “ai” in “said”. Ever heard this one: “Parlay-vouz anglayze?” (Truth is, this mispronunciation is so pervasive that you will find it in English text books for French courses – so I guess I can’t blame you for thinking this is the right way to say it.)

    And while we’re on the subject of “déjà vu” – it might be used incorrectly quite often, but I’ve yet to hear an English speaker pronounce it correctly: besides the “é” (as in “bed”) and the “à” (pronounced like the “u” in “cut” or “sun”), there is the very problematic full and drawn out French “u”, for which there simply is no really good English approximation – try saying “view” while drawing out the “ee-you” and dropping the “w” and pouting your lips till your face hurts – that should give you and idea (the English “view” is what happened to the French word when people became to lazy to pout 🙂

    Now that’s a mouthful – and I could go on! – but the point is that if you want to sound clever by peppering your conversation with foreign words, then you should beware that the exact opposite effect is achieved if they are mispronounced.

  4. First of all, RSVP mean “please reply”. To literally translate it is incorrect. S’il vous plait is the French equivalent of “please” in English. This incorrect interpretation has led many to believe that it is unnecessary to respond to an RSVP if you don’t feel like it. Bad cess to those who think so.
    Secondly, let’s all learn to pronounce niche correctly. It is not nitch. It is neesh.
    Finally, ambiance is a perfectly fine French word exactly equivalent to the perfectly fine English word ambiance. It is not necessary to say”ahm-bee-ahnce'” even when referring to restaurants. Am’-bee-ence is correct and sounds much less pretensious.

  5. I was totally blown away some time ago to see that a VP where I worked sent a company-wide e-mail stating, “… and waa lah, it is completed…” I’ve long since forgotten the subject of that e-mail, but “waa lah” has been etched into my mind forever!

  6. Alice,
    You’re right, using some foreign words can be pretentious, but the expressions we’re talking about here are pretty common, common enough to count s borrowings that have not been completely assimilated. I think that in this case “ballpark” pronunciattions are good enough. /fee ahn say/, for example does the job in English. The mispronunciation I’m thinking of for this word is /fee ahns/.

  7. Did you know that the word “walla” in street Hindi means a person of a particular profession? e.g. taxi driver = taxi walla etc.

  8. I find some of the mutilations rather funny, while still being annoying. There is an argument that says such mutilations is how language evolves. We’ll never truly stand in the way of incorrect usage or pronunciation, however offensive we might find it.
    There are subtleties and nuances of meaning that can be conveyed through the use of foreign words in English text, that can’t be conveyed in English without long-winded sentences. The rule I try to apply to myself and anyone who’ll listen is: if you’re not absolutely sure, don’t use it.

  9. How about the word “entrée”? In France, it is the starter or entry into the meal. In America, everyone uses it as the main course (Stouffers frozen entrées) and I even see French restaurants use it as the header for their main course selections!
    Does anyone know how and when this confusion began?

  10. 1> ‘Deja vu all over again’ is almost always a joke, not a good one, but just a joke.

    2> Words and phrases change their meanings when they move between languages, cultures, continents, classes and so forth, sometimes subtly, sometimes grossly.

    3> The modern or common or distant usage may or may not retain some relationship to the ‘original’ meaning, but it is still good usage. It is not the original meaning of a loanword that will get it in the OED, but the common, accepted meaning.

    4> Purism is limited and stultifying. Learn what words mean, and what they might once have meant, generations ago or oceans away, but languages are alive and evolving.

  11. What is the french term for the comma above an “e” where it is then pronounced as an “a”? As in touche’

  12. I think it’s called an aigue… although I’m not sure about the spelling. The other one (which slants the other side and makes the e sounds like the one in “bed”) is called a grave. Hope that helped =)

  13. Gay,
    The French accent mark (not “comma”) that slants to the right on an e is called the accent aigu. The accent mark that goes in the opposite direction is the accent grave (pronounced with a long a [grahv].

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