x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Relax, we are all guilty of the occasional faux pas

All people who care about words have their own bêtes noires. Indeed, some would call them pet hates and say one of their biggest was the use of French phrases when a perfectly good English alternative exists.

All people who care about words have their own bêtes noires. Indeed, some would call them pet hates and say one of their biggest was the use of French phrases when a perfectly good English alternative exists. A friend who occupies high office at the Daily Mail in London finds the practice particularly annoying when used by fellow journalists. As an occasional offender, I would be more contrite if he promised faithfully to stop his reporters using lazy tabloid clichés in English.

But he has a point, and a very good one if we take the word of Henry Watson Fowler, the author of a classic work on the language, Fowler's Modern English Usage. The book was revised by Sir Ernest Gowers three decades after Mr Fowler's death in 1933, but I am sure the sections on what Mr Fowler called Gallicisms remain much as they were when first written. From time to time, I disagree with the preferences of Mr Fowler. I do not, for example, adopt the "-ize" endings he recommends for such words as organise, recognise and realise. However respectable the authorities in his support, I feel comfortable in my choice of "-ise" and apply it consistently. On the other hand, his disdain for Gallicisms is proclaimed so strongly that it is impossible to ignore; I will in future recall his words with a wince whenever I consider allowing the merest hint of French to intrude when writing or speaking in English.

Having accepted that to urge abandonment of all Gallicisms would be absurd because there are thousands of English words that were once French, Mr Fowler says the wise man adopts them only when he is satisfied they are Gallicisms no more but have been assimilated in the English language. He adds: "To use Gallicisms for the worst of all reasons - that they are Gallicisms - (or) to affect them as giving one's writing a literary air, to enliven one's dull stuff with their accidental oddities; above all to choose Gallicisms that presuppose the reader's acquaintance with the French original: these are confessions of weakness or incompetence."

I sincerely hope anyone who has ever dropped quelle horreure, c'est la vie or "pretentious - moi?" into conversation or correspondence feels suitably chastened. For a few of Mr Fowler's own examples, we must turn back a few pages to the entry for French words. There, too, there is a sharp rebuke for those of us weak or incompetent enough to break Fowler's law. The display of superior knowledge, we are told, is not merely as vulgar as the display of superior wealth but an even greater vulgarity because "knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners".

Only fools, the author goes on, could believe it commends them to the English reader to decorate their writing with incongruous use of jeu de mots for play on words, robe de chambre instead of dressing gown, bien entendu to mean of course, au contraire for on the contrary and the phrase he appears to find most objectionable of all, sauter aux yeux for something that catches the eye unexpectedly. Mr Fowler estimates that the chances of a reader or writer truly belonging to "the select few to whom French is second nature" are perhaps 10,000 to one, and that the use of such terms is therefore inconsiderate and rude.

And there lies our only possibility of escape from his contempt. The British, and other speakers of English, are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages. But Mr Fowler died a long time ago. Times have changed and more and more of us are at least making an effort. Even if I had not given the translations, I doubt whether many readers of The National did not know, or were not able to guess, the meaning of each quoted example of Mr Fowler's - whisper it - bêtes noires.

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae