May 6th 1990
Dear Caroline Highcock,
As you seem aware, my version of Franglais is a joke and not to be confused with the real thing. About the real thing I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I feel that everyone imports too many foreign words – we certainly do, from America – and like most imports a lot of them turn out to be fluffy luxuries, not necessities. But it also seems to me that the French are more touchy and unduly sensitive about this than anyone should be. Looks a lot like insecurity to me. I tell you who you should get in touch with – a man called Gerald Long who used to be head of Reuters and a director of The Times and God knows what. He is a great Francophile and once showed me a speech he had given in France to a learned French gathering about the invasion of French by Anglisisme. And his advice was: Don’t worry! Your language can take it. Have confidence! Every time you legislate against foreign words, you make yourself a laughing stock - and it doesn’t work. I’d agree with that. Seriously, he would be ever so flattered if you tracked him down, and quite informative. He once told me the funniest joke he knew. It depended on an obscure bit of Strasbourg dialect, and was the most unfunny joke I have ever heard. What he meant was, it was the cleverest and most recherché joke he knew.
I think something else needs to be said about Franglais. The reason we do not get hot under the collar about imported words is that we anglicise them too quickly. The British have a genius for taking foreign things and forgetting they were ever foreign. Chinese takeaways… curries… Christianity... American pop music... same with foreign words. I used the word recherché just now, without even thinking. I know the English meaning of recherche, but I am not sure what the French usage is. All those phrases like en suite, en route, tete a tete, vis a vis, chic, décor, pied a terre, petits pois – do the British even think of them as French?
Hardly, I’d say. On the radio the other day Sebastian Walker the children’s publisher said he was setting up a small area at work for mothers to leave children in charge of a nanny. A nursery he said, not a crèche. We have a perfectly good English word already. Fair enough, but his reaction is rather French and very rare over here.
Gerald Long thought my Franglais column was a ghastly piece of bad taste, by the way. And also by the way, there is a dictionary of anglicismes in French – but no doubt you have that and have noted great words like jamesbonderie.
One thing that emerges from that book is that often Franglais is quite creative, partly because the French habit of using just the front bit of the word makes a new coinage (un snack for un snack bar and all that stuff), partly because if you don’t know quite how a word should be handled you come up with either interesting new meanings or interesting new forms. For instance, a recordman is as I remember a record-holder. Therefore it makes sense to the French to invent the word “corecordman”, meaning “an athlete who is joint world record-holder”. They, in other words, now have a more concise word for it than we do. Co-record-holder, perhaps? Hmmm.
This is all fairly flimsy stuff. If you want to ring me and ask me specific questions (much quicker than writing it down), do.