Home  »  The King’s English  »  FOREIGN WORDS

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter I. Vocabulary


THE usual protest must be made, to be treated no doubt with the usual disregard. The difficulty is that some French, Latin, and other words are now also English, though the fiction that they are not is still kept up by italics and (with French words) conscientious efforts at pronunciation. Such are tête-à-tête, ennui, status quo, raison d’être, eirenicon, négligé, and perhaps hundreds more. The novice who is told to avoid foreign words, and then observes that these English words are used freely, takes the rule for a counsel of perfection—not accepted by good writers, and certainly not to be accepted by him, who is sometimes hard put to it for the ornament that he feels his matter deserves. Even with the best will in the world, he finds that there are many words of which he cannot say whether they are yet English or not, as gaucherie, bêtise, camaraderie, soupçon, so that there is no drawing the line. He can only be told that all words not English in appearance are in English writing ugly and not pretty, and that they are justified only (1) if they afford much the shortest or clearest, if not the only way to the meaning (this is usually true of the words we have called really English), or (2) if they have some special appropriateness of association or allusion in the sentence they stand in. This will be illustrated by some of the diplomatic words given below, and by the quotation containing the word chasseur. Some little assistance may, however, be given on details.
  1. To say distrait instead of absent or absent-minded, bien entendu for of course, sans for without (it is, like I guess, good old English but not good English), quand même for anyhow, penchant for liking or fancy, rèdaction for editing or edition, coûte que coûte for at all costs, Schadenfreude for malicious pleasure, oeuvre for work, alma mater (except with strong extenuating circumstances) for University—is pretension and nothing else. The substitutes we have offered are not insisted upon; they may be wrong, or not the best; but English can be found for all these. Moreover, what was said of special association or allusion may apply; to call a luncheon déjeuner, however, as in the appended extract, because it is to be eaten by Frenchmen, is hardly covered by this, though it is a praiseworthy attempt at what the critics call giving an atmosphere.
    It was resolved that on the occasion of the visit of the French Fleet in August the Corporation should offer the officers an appropriate reception and invite them to a déjeuner at the Guildhall.—Times.
    But speaking broadly, what a writer effects by using these ornaments is to make us imagine him telling us he is a wise fellow and one that hath everything handsome about him, including a gentlemanly acquaintance with the French language. Some illustrations follow:
    Motorists lose more than they know by bêtises of this kind.—Times. His determination to conduct them to a successful issue coûte que coûte might result in complications.—Times. The gloom which the Russian troubles have caused at Belgrade has to some extent been lightened by a certain Schadenfreude over the difficulties with which the Hungarian crisis threatens the neighbouring Monarchy.—Times. A recent reperusal … left the impression which is so often produced by the exhibition in bulk of the oeuvre of a deceased Royal Academician—it has emphasized Schiller’s deficiencies without laying equal emphasis on his merits.—Times.
    The following are instances of less familiar French or Latin words used wantonly:
    So, one would have thought, the fever of New York was abated here, even as the smoke of the city was but a gray tache on the horizon.—E. F. Benson.
    Either we know that tache means stain, or we do not. If we do, we cannot admire our novelist’s superior learning: if we do not, we must be doubtful whether we grasp the whole of his possibly valuable meaning. His calculation is perhaps that we shall know it, and shall feel complimented by his just confidence in us.
    When the normal convention governing the relations between victors and vanquished is duly re-established, it will be time to chronicle the conjectures relating to peace in some other part of a journal than that devoted to faits divers.—Times.
    It is true The Times does not condescend to an Odds-and-Ends, or a Miscellaneous column; but many other English newspapers do, under various titles; and the Times writer might have thrown the handkerchief to one of them.
    But times have changed, and this procedure enters into the category of vieille escrime when not employed by a master hand and made to correspond superficially with facts.—Times. In relation to military organization we are still in the flourishing region of the vieilles perruques.—Times.
    The users of these two varieties, who, to judge from the title at the head of their articles, are one and the same person, must have something newer than vieux jeu. Just as that has begun to be intelligible to the rest of us, it becomes itself vieux jeu to them. It is like the man of highest fashion changing his hat-brim because the man of middling fashion has found the pattern of it.
    The familiar gentleman burglar, who, having played wolf to his fellows qua financier, journalist, and barrister, undertakes to raise burglary from being a trade at least to the lupine level of those professions.—Times.
    It is quite needless, and hardly correct, to use qua instead of as except where a sharp distinction is being made between two coexistent functions or points of view, as in the next quotation. Uganda needs quite different treatment if it is regarded as a country from what it needs as a campaigning ground:
    For this point must be borne constantly in mind—the money spent to date was spent with a view only to strategy. The real development of the country qua country must begin to-day.—Times. The reader would not care to have my impressions thereanent; and, indeed, it would not be worth while to record them, as they were the impressions of an ignorance crasse.—C. Brontë.
    The writer who allows Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinarily convincing power of presentment to tempt him into imitating her many literary peccadilloes will reap disaster. Thereanent is as annoying as ignorance crasse.
    It was he who by doctoring the Ems dispatch in 1870 converted a chamade into a fanfaronnade and thus rendered the Franco-German war inevitable.—Times.
    We can all make a shrewd guess at the meaning of fanfaronnade: how many average readers have the remotest idea of what a chamade 1 is? and is the function of newspapers to force upon us against our will the buying of French dictionaries?
  2. Among the diplomatic words, entente may pass as suggesting something a little more definite and official than good understanding; démenti because, though it denotes the same as denial or contradiction, it connotes that no more credence need be given to it than is usually given to the ‘honest men sent to lie abroad for the good of their country’; as for ballon d’essai, we see no advantage in it over kite, and flying a kite, which are good English; it is, however, owing to foreign correspondents’ perverted tastes, already more familiar. The words italicized in the following quotations are still more questionable:
    The two Special Correspondents in Berlin of the leading morning newspapers, the Matin and the Écho de Paris, report a marked détente in the situation.—Times.
    Entente is comprehensible to every one; but with détente many of us are in the humiliating position of not knowing whether to be glad or sorry.
    All the great newspapers have insisted upon the inopportuneness of the démarche of William II.—Times. (proceeding) The entourage and counsellors of the Sultan continue to remain sceptical.—Times.
    Mere laziness, even if the word means anything different from counsellors; but the writer has at least given us an indication that it is only verbiage, by revealing his style in continue to remain.
    In diplomatic circles the whole affair is looked upon as an acte de malveillance towards the Anglo-French entente.—Times. You have been immensely amused, cyrenaically enjoying the moment for the moment’s sake, but looking before and after (as you cannot help looking in the theatre) you have been disconcerted and dérouté.—Times. In spite, however, of this denial and of other official démentis, the Italian Press still seems dissatisfied.—Times.
    In this there is clearly not the distinction that we suggested between denial and démenti—the only thing that could excuse the latter. We have here merely one of those elegant variations treated of in the chapter ‘Airs and Graces’.
  3. It sometimes occurs to a writer that he would like to avail himself of a foreign word or phrase, whether to make a genuine point or to show that he has the gift of tongues, and yet not keep his less favoured readers in the dark; he accordingly uses a literal translation instead of the actual words. It may fairly be doubted whether this is ever worth while; but there is all the difference in the world, as we shall presently exemplify in a pair of contrasted quotations, between the genuine and the ostentatious use. The most familiar phrase thus treated is cela va sans dire; we have of our own I need hardly say, needless to remark, and many other varieties; and the French phrase has no wit or point in it to make it worth aping; we might just as well say, in similar German or French English (whichever of the two languages we had it from), that understands itself; each of them has to us the quaintness of being non-idiomatic, and no other merit whatever. A single word that we have taken in the same way is more defensible, because it did, when first introduced here, possess a definite meaning that no existing English word had: epochmaking is a literal translation, or transliteration almost, from German. We may regret that we took it, now; for it will always have an alien look about it; and, recent in English as it is, it has already lost its meaning; it belongs, in fact, to one of those word-series of which each member gets successively worn out. Epochmaking is now no more than remarkable, as witness this extract from a speech by the Lord Chancellor:
    The banquet to M. Berryer and the banquet to Mr. Benjamin, both of them very important, and to my mind epochmaking occasions.—Lord Halsbury.
    The verb to orient is a Gallicism of much the same sort, and the half-world is perhaps worse:
    In his quality of eligible bachelor he had no objections at any time to conversing with a goodlooking girl. Only he wished very much that he could orient this particular one.—Crockett. High society is represented by … Lady Beauminster, the half-world by Mrs. Montrose, loveliness and luckless innocence by her daughter Helen.—Times.
    The next extract is perhaps from the pen of a French-speaker trying to write English: but it is not worse than what the English writer who comes below him does deliberately:
    Our enveloping movement, which has been proceeding since several days.—Times. Making every allowance for special circumstances, the manner in which these amateur soldiers of seven weeks’ service acquitted themselves compels one ‘furiously to think’.—Westminster Gazette.
    A warning may be given that it is dangerous to translate if you do not know for certain what the original means. To ask what the devil some one was doing in that gallery is tempting, and fatal. Appended are the passages illustrating the two different motives for translation:
    If we could take this assurance at its face value and to the foot of the letter, we should have to conclude…—Times.
    It will be observed (a) that literally gives the meaning perfectly; (b) that to the foot of the letter is absolutely unintelligible to any one not previously acquainted with au pied de la lettre; (c) that there is no wit or other admirable quality in the French itself. The writer is meanly admiring mean things; nothing could possibly be more fatuous than such half-hearted gallicizing.
    I thought afterwards, but it was the spirit of the staircase, what a pity it was that I did not stand at the door with a hat, saying, ‘Give an obol to Belisarius’.—Morley.
    The French have had the wit to pack into the words esprit d’escalier the common experience that one’s happiest retorts occur to one only when the chance of uttering them is gone, the door is closed, and one’s feet are on the staircase. That is well worth introducing to an English audience; the only question is whether it is of any use to translate it without explanation. No one will know what spirit of the staircase is who is not already familiar with esprit d’escalier; and even he who is may not recognize it in disguise, seeing that esprit does not mean spirit (which suggests a goblin lurking in the hall clock), but wit. We cannot refrain from adding a variation that deprives au pied de la lettre even of its quaintness:
    The tone of Russian official statements on the subject is not encouraging, but then, perhaps, they ought not to be taken at the letter.—Times.
  4. Closely connected with this mistake of translating is the other of taking liberties with foreign phrases in their original form, dovetailing them into the construction of an English sentence when they do not lend themselves to it. In Latin words and phrases, other cases should always be changed to the nominative, whatever the government in the English sentence, unless the Latin word that accounted for the case is included in the quotation. It will be admitted that all the four passages below are ugly:
    The whole party were engaged ohne Rast with a prodigious quantity of Hast in a continuous social effort.—E. F. Benson.
    German, in which so few Englishmen are at their ease, is the last among the half-dozen best-known languages to play these tricks with. The facetiousness here is indescribably heavy.
    The clergy in rochet, alb, and other best pontificalibus.—Carlyle.
    The intention is again facetious; but the incongruity between a Latin inflected ablative and English uninflected objectives is a kind of piping to which no man can dance; that the English in and the Latin in happen to be spelt alike is no defence; it is clear that in is here English, not Latin; either in pontificalibus, or in other pontificalia.
    The feeling that one is an antecedentem scelestum after whom a sure, though lame, Nemesis is hobbling….—Trollope.
    Antecedens scelestus is necessary.
    …, which were so evident in the days of the early Church, are now non est.—Daily Telegraph. All things considered, I wonder they were not non est long ago.—Times.
    Such maltreatment of non est inventus, which seems to have amused some past generations, is surely now as stale and unprofitable as individual itself.
  5. A special caution may be given about some words and phrases that either are shams, or are used in wrong senses. Of the first kind are nom de plume, morale. The French for the name that an author chooses to write under is nom de guerre. We, in the pride of our knowledge that guerre means war, have forgotten that there is such a thing as metaphor, assumed that another phrase is required for literary campaigning, thereupon ascertained the French for pen, and so evolved nom de plume. It is unfortunate; for we now have to choose between a blunder and a pedantry; but writers who know the facts are beginning to reconcile themselves to seeming pedantic for a time, and reviving nom de guerre.The French for what we call morale, writing it in italics under the impression that it is French, is actually moral. The other is so familiar, however, that it is doubtful whether it would not be better to drop the italics, keep the -e, and tell the French that they can spell their word as they please, and we shall do the like with ours. So Mr. Kipling:
    The Gaul, ever an artist, breaks enclosure to study the morale [sic], at the present day, of the British sailorman.—Kipling.
    In the second class, of phrases whose meaning is mistaken, we choose scandalum magnatum, arrière-pensée, phantasmagoria, and cui bono? Scandalum magnatum is a favourite with the lower-class novelist who takes magnatum for a participle meaning magnified, and finds the combination less homely than a shocking affair. It is a genitive plural noun, and the amplified translation of the two words, which we borrow from the Encyclopaedia, runs: ‘Slander of great men, such as peers, judges, or great officers of state, whereby discord may arise within the realm’. Arrière-pensée we have seen used, with comic intent but sad effect, for a bustle or dress-improver; and, with sad intent but comic effect, for an afterthought; it is better confined to its real meaning of an ulterior object, if indeed we cannot be content with our own language and use those words instead. Phantasmagoria is a singular noun; at least the corresponding French monstrosity, fantasmagorie, is unmistakably singular; and, if used at all in English, it should be so with us too. But the final -a irresistibly suggests a plural to the valorous writers who are impressed without being terrified by the unknown; so:
    Not that such phantasmagoria are to be compared for a moment with such desirable things as fashion, fine clothes…—Borrow.
    Cui bono? is a notorious trap for journalists. It is naturally surprising to any one who has not pushed his classics far to be told that the literal translation of it is not ‘To what good (end)?’ that is ‘What is the good of it?’ but ‘Who benefited?’. The former rendering is not an absolutely impossible one on the principles of Latin grammar, which adds to the confusion. But if that were its real meaning it would be indeed astonishing that it should have become a famous phrase; the use of it instead of ‘What is the good?’ would be as silly and gratuitous as our above-mentioned to the foot of the letter. Every scholar knows, however, that cui bono? does deserve to be used, in its true sense. It is a shrewd and pregnant phrase like cherchez la femme or esprit d’escalier. Cherchez la femme wraps up in itself a perhaps incorrect but still interesting theory of life—that whenever anything goes wrong there is a woman at the bottom of it; find her, and all will be explained. Cui bono? means, as we said, ‘Who benefited?’. It is a Roman lawyer’s maxim, who held that when you were at a loss to tell where the responsibility for a crime lay, your best chance was to inquire who had reaped the benefit of it. It has been worth while to devote a few lines to this phrase, because nothing could better show at once what is worth transplanting into English, and what dangers await any one who uses Latin or French merely because he has a taste for ornament. In the following quotation the meaning, though most obscurely expressed, is probably correct; and cui bono? stands for: ‘Where can the story have come from? why, who will profit by a misunderstanding between Italy and France? Germany, of course; so doubtless Germany invented the story’. Cui bono? is quite capable of implying all that; but a merciful writer will give his readers a little more help:
    (Berlin) The news which awakens the most hopeful interest is the story of a concession to a Franco-Belgian syndicate in the harbour of Tripoli. There is a manifest desire that the statement should be confirmed and that it should have the effect of exciting the Italian people and alienating them from France. Cui bono?—Times.
  6. It now only remains to add that there are French words good in some contexts, and not in others. Régime is good in the combination ancien régime, because that is the briefest way of alluding to the state of things in France before the Revolution. Further, its use in the first of the appended passages is appropriate enough, because there is an undoubted parallel between Russia now and France then. But in the second, administration ought to be the word:
    Throwing a flood of light upon the proceedings of the existing régime in Russia.—Times. He said that the goodwill and friendship of the Milner régime had resulted in the effective co-operation of the two countries.—Times.
    The word employé is often a long, ugly, and unnatural substitute for men, workmen, or hands, one of which should have been used in the first two of the passages below. But it has a value where clerks or higher degrees are to be included, as in the third passage. It should be used as seldom as possible, that is all:
    The warehouses of the Russian Steamship Company here have been set on fire by some dismissed employés.—Times. The employés of the Trans-Caucasian line to-day struck work.—Times. The new project, Article 17, ordains that all employés of the railways, whatever their rank or the nature of their employment, are to be considered as public officials.—Times.
    Finally, even words that have not begun to be naturalized may be used exceptionally when a real point can be gained by it. To say chasseur instead of sportsman, gun, or other English word, is generally ridiculous. But our English notion of the French sportsman (right or wrong) is that he sports not because he likes sport, but because he likes the picturesque costumes it gives an excuse for. Consequently the word is quite appropriate in the following:
    But the costume of the chasseurs—green velvet, very Robin-Hoody—had been most tasteful.—E. F. Benson.
Readers of history are of course likely to be familiar with it; it occurs, for instance, scores of times in Carlyle’s Friedrich. In such work it is legitimate, being sure, between context and repetition, to be comprehensible; but this does not apply to newspaper writing. [back]