Monthly Archives: September, 2012

Gallicisms: comme il faut or just a bête noire?


Mesdames et monsieurs, let’s face it; French is a beautiful language and our own tongue is all the richer for the loan-words (i.e. on permanent loan). Merci beaucoup, monsieur, but but we no longer need your help.

Ever since William the Bastard of Normandy crossed the Channel to poke King Harold in the eye we’ve been enjoying rich French sauces sprinkled on our plain Anglo-Saxon meat and our Latin vegetables. But more often than not, it’s just that: a garnish, a flavouring, a condiment. The Anglo-Saxon equivalent of words is often perfectly adequate. For example, what’s wrong with ‘bugbear’? Why do we need to use the expression bête noire? Is it just to show off?

I like French as much as the next homme but I do marvel at the enduring power of Francophilia at the snob end of the English vocabulary. Often these days the Americans, rather than the British, favour a French-ish pronunciation of words like ‘fillet’ and ‘ballet,’ and more recently ‘ambience’. Lately they’ve taken up the ridiculous vogue pronunciation ‘homage’ (oh-mahj), a word that even the French don’t use.

Yet there is no lack of British English speakers (and I include the rest of the Anglosphere) using terms like enfant terrible and cuisine. How would people communicate in the hospitality industry without French? The whole sector is rife with Gallicisms like aperitifà la carte and even restaurant, hôtel and café. Without them we’d be eating sheep rather than mutton, and pig rather than bacon. Where’s the savour faire in that? How would we express our joie de vivre when served an entrée? What terminology would we use when attending the première of an avant-garde film or sampling hors d’oeuvres at a prêt-à-porter event? How would we even reply to events without an RSVP, s’il vous plaît?

À propos of rien, entre nous, let’s share a linguistic tête-a-tête and admit that no critique worth its sel can avoid a little Franglais, for that je ne sais pourquoi tone of hauteur. N’est-ce pas? Any bon viveur knows it’s de rigeur to be au fait with a few Gallic bon mots en passant. And we don’t limit our badinage to impressing the concierge. Each of us has at some time kept a rendezvous, sent a communiqué or resided in a pied-à-terre in a cul de sac. Why do we talk like this when there are English equivalents? We carry a portmanteau rather than a satchel, trunk or bag. We bid adieu rather than goodbye or farewell. We wish each other a bon voyage.

I don’t want to sound like an inkhorn manqué. There is some point to this folie. Often these French alternatives provide shades of meaning only available in the Gallic loan-word, differentiating each one from its English cousine and thereby justifying its inclusion. ‘Newly rich’ doesn’t sound half so class-conscious as nouveau riche. ‘Artist’ is a term that may connote respect, whereas artiste does not. Noblesse oblige and coup de grâce can convey something of the age of chivalry (cheval, mais oui). For the mot juste we owe France grand-temps for concepts that English lacks, which we’ve been happy to adopt: e.g. déjà vu, faux pas, cliché, au pair, bric-à-brac, reconnaisance, croissant, baguette, rapport, silhouette, crêpesdécor, brunette, façade, cache, genre, bureau, sabotage, chauffeur, charlatan, fait accompli, grand prix, carte blanche, en route, dressage, décolletage, laissez faire, crèche, esprit de corps, gaffe, impasse, ennui, chic, depot, bouquet, débâcle, gauche, mardi gras, genre, trompe-l’oiel, billet-doux, renaissance, entrepreneur, fiancée, plateau, et bloody cetera.

So, apart from sophistication, critical theory, art, literature, film, mathematics, biochemistry and fine food, what have the French ever done for us? Well, there’s the polite euphemism. For example, we can dismiss a nasty reminder of our carnivorous diet by pretending that the slaughterhouse does not exist, and giving it the French name abattoir. We can label all manner of unsavoury associations as liaisons and refer to our hind quarters as the derrière. We can turn a whore into a courtesan, a domestic homicide into a crime passionel and a grubby quarrel into a contretemps. A malaise is more than mere sickness. A ménage a trois is more daring than a threesome, and a cutting remark is wittier if it’s a riposte. Exceptional achievement is even more exceptional if it’s a tour de force. And bon appétit improves our anticipation so much better than a humdrum ‘enjoy your meal’.

But here’s the rub. Many of our French loan-words aren’t used by the French any more. No contemporary Frenchman talks of a film-maker as an auteur. The word means ‘author’ in French. It came to English via French film theory. No French chef serves apple pie à la mode. The term means ‘fashionable’, and fashions have changed. The French might have their bugbears but they don’t suffer from bêtes-noire; rather they become them. The term bête-noire in French is closer to our expression ‘worst enemy’.

They don’t bathe au naturel. This term doesn’t mean nude; rather it means in a natural state, such as a woman without make-up or someone acting without affectation. French newspapers don’t refer to a cause célèbre. It’s not an expression used in France. An exposé is nothing special: it’s any kind of story or report. Women do not sport décolletage but rather décolleté. No one in France pays ‘homage’ to anyone. Rather they show hommage or respect. And nobody holds a séance to summon the departed. A séance is any kind of sit-down meeting.

Oddest of all, no native French speaker uses the term ‘double-entendre’. It’s not even a French phrase. Never was. Sacré bleu, mes amis. Next they’ll be telling us Allo, Allo wasn’t even a French comedy. Parley-voo.



Am I reading or only listening?

I listen to audio books while driving. Recently a friend challenged me about my claim to have ‘read’ a certain book. If I listen to it, can I really be said to have read it? Sure, it’s not my inner voice scanning the words but I am following the narrative and admiring the prose or verse. I appreciate the text without seeing it, as a playgoer does. Would a blind person say that he or she has not read a book if only using Braille? That’s reading. So is listening, I maintain. After all, we buy machines to ‘read’ software so we can watch or listen to films and music recordings. In earlier epochs, most narratives were read aloud, to be performed.

True, some books are not easy to translate into the spoken word: books on mathematics, books with illustrations, books that rely on concrete arrangement of text or artfully arranged diagrams or colour plates. Every form has its limitations. Listening to the plays of Shakespeare on audio books can be at once more and less satisfying than reading them. And both are inferior to seeing the plays in performance. But plays are different. Like film scripts, they are designed for actors to perform.

Film adaptations of plays can work well. Adapations of books almost invariably disappoint some reader who cherishes a certain book. Though I am open-minded on this subject I can think of only half a dozen truly satisfying film and TV adaptations of favourite books. This will always be a highly subjective judgement by any viewer-reader but there are boundaries that we all know cannot be crossed. Watching TV adpatations of Jane Austen does not mean you have read the books with their highly ironic style of narrative and descriptive power. There would be few people who consider that seeing The Innocents, a successful film adaptation of Turn of the Screw by Henry James, produces the same experience as reading the book. The director of The Name of the Rose, Jean-Jacques Annaud, quite rightly describes his adaptation as a palimpsest of the book by Umberto Eco. Even the slavishly faithful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Granada Television in 1981 (I won’t elaborate on the travesty of a film version in 2008) cannot capture the full gamut of ideas, emotions and events of a moderate-sized novel. But an unabridged audio book is the entire book: every word, right down to the dedication. I contend that listening to a fine book read by a professional actor provides equivalent reading satisfaction to sitting in a quiet corner of a library.

Let us consider the matter of language. Can I be said to have ‘read’ these books or have I merely been listening while seated behind the steering wheel, an audience member at a performance? I argue that this is not an exclusive state of being; I’m doing both. A sub-standard reader can dull the most thrilling prose: the performance equivalent of reading when your eyes are dropping – an unwise state for drivers. Though I admire the time and effort made by volunteer readers in LibriVox recordings, I have been disappointed more often than not. I prefer commerically produced recordings. A professional actor can tease nuance from the most modest of sentences, enlivening flat passages and unpicking complex or tortuous syntax. As a reader, relying on my internal voice, I might struggle on my first-time journey through Proust, Fielding or Dante. A skilled actor can bring these works alive.

So please excuse this High Fidelity moment but here are my Top 5 examples of excellent audio book performances:

  1. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, read by Ian Holm
  2. Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton, read by Peter Hosking
  3. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, read by Scott Brick
  4. Ulysses, by James Joyce, read by Jim Norton (final chapter read by Marcella Riordan)
  5. Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens, read by Alex Jennings

I have a further category: the best 2 audio books read by the author (not always a happy experience)

  1.                   Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carre
  2.                   Beloved, read by Toni Morrison

I have one more category, my favourite reading by an actor-author, who happens to be the author’s daughter: The Consolation of Joe Cinque, by Helen Garner, read by Alice Garner

But my experiences of audio books have not all been satisfactory. I once attempted to listen to a recording of The Invisible Man by H G Wells, read by an American actor who shall remain nameless. His attempts at various English accents were so abysmal that I had to abandon the recording. Think of Dick Van Dyke’s turn at Cockney in Mary Poppins, and then magnify it to include equally disastrous attempts at an upper class and a Sussex regional accent. Recently I had a similar experience listening to an inept reader making a hash of accents as he tried to read Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis. Yet these few disappointing experiences have soured neither my taste for those authors nor the joy of reading-listening as I drive. While motoring through districts of my city I’m often reminded of passages from certain books, such as The Iliad read by Derek Jacobi or several Dorothy L Sayers novels read by Ian Carmichael.

In my estimatation, audio books have three advantages:

(1) They transform sleep-inducing drives or boring manual tasks into stimulating events

(2) They resuscitate books that failed to capture my imagination when I first read them

(3) They enable me to work on my catch-up list, which will always be in deficit

Of these three, I think I value the last one most highly. If not for audio books I might never have opened the pages of The Timeless Land, Moby Dick or One Thousand and One Nights. I have laughed aloud to the comic turns of Bill Bryson, Douglas Adams and Woody Allen. I have grown misty listening to Alice Munro and Margaret Attwood. Right now I’m listening to The Moonstone, an absolute ripper of a recording of the Wilkie Collins masterpeice, read by Peter Jeffrey. There is no such thing as a boring commute when I have a quality audio book in the car. And here’s the clincher. I have gone back and read several of these books because their out-loud version has been so satisfying. However I approach them, they have come alive. And that’s the most a reader or writer can ask for.

Yes we cant

During broadcasts of the London Olympics, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia splurged on advertising with its ‘Can’ campaign. These ads featured a human contraction, ‘Can’t,’ that would jettison its negative ending during each episode to endorse Australia’s Olympians with a positive ‘Can-do’ message. Just another advert: harmless fun and meaningless. This is how CBA spun its spin: ‘The greatest impediment to progress is the word Can’t. Can, on the other hand, makes things happen.’ Yada, yada, trust me, would I lie to you? But in this series of televised advertisements, the contraction ‘Can’t’ often appeared to mislay its apostrophe in unexplained fashion, leaving a message of ‘cant’. Cant indeed.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘cant’ as either ‘insincere pious or moral talk’ or ‘ephemeral and fashionable catchwords’. I love the irony of Which Bank spouting thieves’ cant. Surely a well-paid advertising agency is enjoying the joke, after having put one over the country’s largest financial institution by tagging them with so egregious an association. Which is it to be, CBA: (a) insincere expressions of goodness (b) private language of the underworld (c) phraseology of an industry or class (d) hypocritical talk or (e) the whining speech of beggars? Hardly a suitable association for Olympic athletes, if anyone bothered to scrutinise the choice of word; it wouldn’t make a breakfast or even a light snack for champions.

Where did this word come from? Well, that’s a matter of some debate. Latin (cantus), for song, is a strong contender, and closely related to ‘chant,’ though it arrived in English via Low German (kant). It’s a perfect word for advertising. There’s an entirely different meaning for ‘cant’ also. Here’s what Merriam-Webster English Dictionary has to say. As a verb, ‘cant’ means to give an oblique edge to, to set at an angle or pitch to one side. As a noun, it means a slope, a slant, an edge or sudden tilting movement. What a perfect way to describe both the practice of advertising and the marketing of banks. Once again that ad agency will be laughing all the way to the… financial report. This meaning of the word didn’t take a Germanic route from Latin; instead it journeyed on a scenic tour via Norman French and Middle English. However, there is a school of thought that attributes this word neither to the Germans or the French, but to the Celts. Is this just one of those philological coincidences?

There’s a Celtic word ‘cant,’ from which we derive our term for the camber or incline in a road, as well as speech at variance with the norm (e.g. ‘caint’ in Irish and ‘chainnt’ in Gaelic). It makes a cant-like kind of sense. Could the proper nouns Kent and Canterbury be related to potentially multiple derivations, if two language forks belong to tributaries of the same river?  If so, who would be the real thieves: Romans, Celts, Goths or Franks? In one sense, we may all be speaking a thieves’ cant.

This usage of the word was common in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, on stage and off; and it has persisted ever since, throughout plays of the Restoration, especially those featuring low-born criminal types. In more recent times it has coloured the language of Dickens and of drama-comedies such as Minder, which featured a thieves’ cant of London’s East End in well-worn vernacular terms like ‘beak’ (for judge), ‘nark’ (for informer), ‘mark’ (for robbery target) and ‘rozzer’ (for policeman).  Thieves’ cant was a common linguistic feature of criminals transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, part of the Cockney ‘flash language’. But the shelf life of thieves’ cant is short. Once its terms seep into general usage, they lose their power, and other code terms take their place. Cant is ever-shifting. Examples rendered into print or dramatic form are often obsolete, losing their punch in direct proportion to popularity.

A bit like advertising slogans.