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French Words That Turned English

Richard Scholar

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French Words That Turned English

Richard Scholar

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The fascinating history of French words that have entered the English language and the fertile but fraught relationship between English- and French-speaking cultures across the world English has borrowed more words from French than from any other modern foreign language. French words and phrases—such as à la mode, ennui, naïveté and caprice —lend English a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that would otherwise elude the language. Richard Scholar examines the continuing history of untranslated French words in English and asks what these words reveal about the fertile but fraught relationship that England and France have long shared and that now entangles English- and French-speaking cultures all over the world. Émigrés demonstrates that French borrowings have, over the centuries, "turned" English in more ways than one. From the seventeenth-century polymath John Evelyn's complaint that English lacks "words that do so fully express" the French ennui and naïveté, to George W. Bush's purported claim that "the French don't have a word for entrepreneur, " this unique history of English argues that French words have offered more than the mere seasoning of the occasional mot juste. They have established themselves as "creolizing keywords" that both connect English speakers to—and separate them from—French. Moving from the realms of opera to ice cream, the book shows how migrant French words are never the same again for having ventured abroad, and how they complete English by reminding us that it is fundamentally incomplete.At a moment of resurgent nationalism in the English-speaking world, Émigrés invites native Anglophone readers to consider how much we owe the French language and why so many of us remain ambivalent about the migrants in our midst.

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French À la Mode

à la mode, adv., adj., n., and prep.
Origin: A borrowing from French.
There is likewise a manifest rotation and Circling of words,
which goe in and out like the mode and fashion.
PERHAPS NO PHRASE captures more succinctly the fascination in the English-speaking world with all things French. À la mode features in English both as a conspicuous example of that fascination and as its perfect linguistic vehicle. Riding the crest of wave after wave of French fashion across all areas of culture for the last five hundred years, à la mode has repeatedly brought home the perception that fashion is French, that these two go—as it were—hand in (this season’s) glove.
That perception is by no means confined to the English-speaking world: from the early eighteenth century, people across continental Europe declared France to have a monopoly on fashionable culture, giving the country a reputation it enjoys all over the world to this day.1 The English were not alone in borrowing, from the French, their à la mode. The Germans got there first: from the 1620s, their language features alamode as adjective and adverb, and German works of the same period feature other controversially modish French terms that stand out typographically from the Gothic-script text that surrounds them. Forms of the same phrase also appear in Italian and Dutch in the course of the seventeenth century. The feminine French noun at the heart of the phrase—mode (‘fashion’)—travelled, meanwhile, into all of these languages as well as Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, and Swedish. English can therefore lay claim to a mere share of the global phenomenon that is French à la mode.2
Yet the English share contains specificities. The most revealing of these may be the peculiar fear and loathing that accompanied the fascination with all things French at a time when, in British culture and society, being French was synonymous with being foreign. Several seventeenth-century English lexicographers record of Frenchman that, as Edward Phillips puts it in his dictionary, the term was ‘anciently us’d to signify every Foreigner or Outlandish Man’. That perception of foreignness not only defined English attitudes towards France and the French but, as we will see, shaped questions of collective identity central to English culture and society.3
I will explore these developments in the company of à la mode. Historians of French à la mode in English have to consider centuries of relations across the English Channel. Yet they need, also, to explore contact with French in English-speaking cultures and societies in other parts of the world. That history would be incomplete, for example, without the episode in which French à la mode travels to North America in the late nineteenth century, finds employment selling ice cream as an accompaniment to apple pie, and meets with such success that to this day, in the United States and Canada, à la mode means ‘served with ice cream’. North Americans use the phrase on countless occasions every day without registering any residual sense of its Frenchness. Their adoption of à la mode is a conspicuous instance of the phrase’s wider history of migration and cultural mixing.
That history will be at the heart of both this and the following chapter. It begins in the second half of the seventeenth century, in England, as à la mode rose to the height of linguistic fashion in English. As it did so, its three constituent words were rolled into one, and the resulting noun—alamode—named, among other things, a light, glossy silk fabric, usually black, used for handkerchiefs, headscarves, hoods, and the like. This sartorial accompaniment was every bit as desirable to the dressier English as ice cream became to pie-eating North Americans: the nineteenth-century historian of England Thomas Macaulay described ‘regular exchange of the fleeces of Cotswold for the alamodes of Lyons’.4 The alamode was a finely wrought, floaty thing of nothing, a conspicuous and ubiquitous fashion accessory, designed to lend to every outfit the elusive seductiveness of the foreign. It thus makes the perfect emblem for à la mode. The fascinations it conveys and the fear and loathing it inspires along the way are all held in the folds of its silky fabric.
It is a clear sign that a word is starting to fascinate arbiters of linguistic fashion when they, like guests at a soirée, find an occasion to sport the latest accessory. They often do this, for example, by placing the word in the title of a work and lending it the status of a topic around which an entire discourse can be organized. This is precisely what happened to à la mode in the second half of the seventeenth century in England. English translators of France’s leading comic dramatist, Molière, led the way: in his play, The Damoiselles À la Mode (1667), Richard Flecknoe gathered together elements from three of Molière’s comedies under a fashionably Frenchified title; while Tom Rawlins translated Molière’s Le Cocu imaginaire (1660) as Tom Essence: or, The Modish Wife (1677).5 More prominently still, England’s poet laureate, John Dryden, wrote Marriage À-la-Mode (1673), a comedy featuring a rich woman-about-town, Melantha, who—in the hope of making it at court—learns each day new French words with which to season her conversation. Dryden’s fellow playwright George Etherege (c. 1636–c. 1692) then satirized Melantha’s fictional male counterpart, the Frenchified fop, in The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676). Dryden’s Marriage À-la-Mode and Etherege’s Man of Mode were immediate successes and, as we shall see, have established themselves since as classics of Restoration drama with continuing afterlives on stage and screen as well as on the page. They bear eloquent witness to the modalities of French à la mode and the moods it provoked in late seventeenth-century England.

The Restoration Moment

The new fashion for French à la mode in late seventeenth-century England coincides with the period, known as the Restoration (1660–85), when Charles II of England—after spending many of the Civil War and Commonwealth years in exile in France along with many displaced English royalists—returned to England in 1660 and ‘restored’ its Stuart monarchy. Charles II, a cousin of Louis XIV of France, brought a highly Frenchified court culture back to England. There was, of course, nothing new about this: if Frenchification may be deemed to include Normanization, as early modern commentators certainly thought it could, then Frenchification had reached English culture and society in waves since at least 1066. The Restoration constituted, nonetheless, a high-water mark.
The accession, in 1603, of James VI of Scotland (1566–1625) to the throne of the kingdom of England and its incorporated Principality of Wales—and, with it, the Kingdom of Ireland—considerably strengthened the links of the three kingdoms with France. French was widely spoken at the court of James. James’s son, Charles I (1600–49), married a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria (1609–69), a daughter of Henri IV of France. Henrietta Maria moved to England in 1625 and brought with her many aspects of contemporary French courtly culture. The Civil War in England, which culminated in the execution of Charles I in 1649, saw the children of Charles and Henrietta Maria exiled in France. Charles II, after his return to England at the Restoration, never dispelled the suspicion among some of his subjects that he included adherence to Catholicism among his Frenchified manners. But exposure to French language and culture cut across confessional lines as well as the social hierarchy of early modern England. Puritan as well as royalist families evacuated their children to France during the years of Civil War in England. The foreign travel of wealthy and privileged English men and women enabled not only them, but also less socially privileged members of their entourage, to become conversant in modern foreign languages, particularly French, and au fait with French manners. Foreign trade required English people of varying social conditions, such as sailors, merchants, and diplomats, to learn other tongues: this was a time—so different from our own—when few people born outside the three kingdoms could speak or understand English.6
Foreign settlers in the British isles were exceptions to that rule. Many French visited or settled in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland during the seventeenth century. They crossed the Channel and the Irish Sea to find work as merchants, domestic servants, chefs, and tailors. Political exiles from the court of Louis XIV, among them the writer Charles de Saint-Evremond (1613–1703), joined them. Many French settlers were Protestants. England had, since the Reformation, been receiving Protestants escaping persecution from countries across Catholic Europe. The Huguenot (French Protestant) community grew substantially at the end of the Restoration period, after Louis XIV signalled a policy of increased intolerance towards Huguenots in France by revoking, in 1685, the Edict of Nantes of 1598, through which his predecessor Henry IV had instituted freedom of conscience, full civil rights, and a wide degree of freedom of cult for Huguenots. Somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand French Huguenots are estimated to have sought refuge in England at that time alone, and around a further ten thousand in Ireland. Fewer travelled to Scotland.7
The two groups of people just identified—Francophiles in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and the French living in those realms—brought French fashions to bear on all aspects of Restoration culture, including the English language, which continued to receive wave upon wave of French foreign borrowings. Surfing in on the crest of one such wave was à la mode, of course, and it was joined by many other such émigrés. Dryden’s female Francomaniac Melantha, having ‘drain’d all the French Plays and Romances’ of their words, needs more if she is to continue sporting glamorous foreign linguistic accessories in the right company. She orders her serving woman, Philotis, to furnish her with fresh supplies. Philotis is a fictional equivalent of the low-born servants who acquired working knowledge of foreign languages in the entourage of their masters and mistresses. She knows more French than Melantha and, in Act 3 Scene 1 of Marriage À-la-Mode, she provides her mistress with a list that runs as follows: sottises, figure, naive and naiveté, foible, chagrin, grimace, embarrasse, double entendre, équivoque, éclaircissement, suite, bévue, façon, penchant, coup d’étourdi, and ridicule. To that list Melantha will add, in the following scenes, caprice.8
These words amount to nothing more than a drop in the ocean of the French-derived words found in Marriage À-la-Mode. That ocean can seem bottomless, because it is on occasions difficult to be certain which of the words are the newly arrived French foreignisms, and which are erstwhile borrowings now absorbed into English. The first conversation that Melantha has with the man she will eventually marry, Palamede, illustrates the point. Palamede, who knows of her penchant for French, immediately flirts with Melantha by telling her he looks for her favour (in love) to ‘render’ him ‘accomplished’. He introduces into his English syntaxical structures, as well as lexical choices, from French. Melantha replies in kind: ‘A Gentleman, Sir, that understands the Grand mond so well, who has ha[u]nted the best conversations, and who (in short) has voyag’d, may pretend to the good graces of any Lady.’ Palamede then comments on Melantha’s reply in an aside as follows: ‘Hay day! Grand mond! conversation! voyag’d! and good graces! I find my Mistris is one of those that run mad in new French words.’9
Palamede singles out, in Melantha’s sentence, words whose status as French seems clearly marked by their remaining either unadapted to their new English linguistic environment (as in the case of grand mond) or half adapted (as in the case of good graces, for example, a literal translation of the French bonnes grâces). By contrast, the inclusion of conversation and voyag’d in Palamede’s aside is surprising to my twenty-first-century ear, because both words have by now been fully adapted to English pronunciation and usage. The same observations might be made of Philotis’s list of French borrowings: some of its items (such as éclaircissement) remain unadapted in English, others (such as naïveté) strike me as falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and others still (such as ridicule) have been wholly adapted. The first audiences and readers of Marriage À-la-Mode may have pronounced these words in a variety of ways depending on their level of acquaintance with French, their attitude towards it and other foreign languages, and other sociolinguistic considerations. While concrete evidence about early modern English pronunciation is scarce, we can infer from Palamede’s qualification of all these words as ‘new’ and ‘French’ that he was to pronounce them in an unnaturalized way on stage, since otherwise his satirical aside would make no sense to the audience. The comic inference for all to draw from Melantha and Palamede’s exchange was clear. English was folding French in the ambivalent embrace of a new à la mode marriage.
Some of the new arrivals from France were clearly perceived to be more à la mode than others. Melantha hopes that fashionable Palamede, with his contacts abroad, will bring home to her everything that is, as she puts it, ‘fine, I mean all that’s delicate, and bien tourné’. There were modes within modes. That this is so is amply demonstrated by Sir Fopling Flutter, in Etherege’s The Man of Mode, a play that offers us—among other things—a useful means of cross-checking Melantha’s list of new French words. Unlike Melantha, Sir Fopling has no need to gather his fashionable language from books or other people, being reported at the beginning of the play to be ‘lately arrived piping hot from Paris’. When he makes his first and much awaited appearance on stage, it is in a swirl of modish French trappings, linguistic as well as sartorial.10
These trappings confirm their wearer as the extravagant flutter of a Frenchified fopling that his name promises. However, in his use of gallicisms, Sir Fopling in fact differs only in degree from his peers. He and other characters in The Man of Mode use as many French-derived words as are found in Marriage À-la-Mode. Some of these émigrés—embarras being one such—occur in both plays. Others that do so include billet doux, doux yeux, éclaircissement, fierté, galanterie, galèche, grand ballet, and intrigue. These gallicisms amount to a veritable ABC of flirting, trysting, and other courtly comings-and-goings, including the latest carriage from France in which to do all of the above in style, the calèche (which travels into seventeenth-century English as galèche or gallesh).
The obsession with gallicisms that Melantha and Sir Fopling indulge offers a precious snapshot of a precise moment in the unfolding and inexorable process of language change whereby successive imports of French words have entered modern English. This is the Restoration moment. French was all the rage among the British aristocracy and the rising middle classes who affected aristocratic manners. The works of Dryden and Etherege show that moment of language contact and change taking place within the context of social hierarchy. ‘A Town-Lady, without any relation to the Court’, Melantha mixes new Fre...