Read CHAPTER III of Society for Pure English‚ Tract 5 : The Englishing of French Words, free online book, by Society for Pure English, on

The principle which ought to govern can be stated simply. English should be at liberty to help itself freely to every foreign word which seems to fill a want in our own language. It ought to take these words on probation, so to speak, keeping those which prove themselves useful, and casting out those which are idle or rebellious. And then those which are retained ought to become completely English, in pronunciation, in accent, in spelling, and in the formation of their plurals. No doubt this is to-day a counsel of perfection; but it indicates the goal which should be strived for. It is what English was capable of accomplishing prior to the middle of the seventeenth century. It is what English may be able to accomplish in the middle of the twentieth century, if we once awaken to the danger of contaminating our speech with unassimilated words, and to the disgrace, which our stupidity or laziness must bring upon us, of addressing the world in a pudding-stone and piebald language. Dr. Bradley has warned us that ’the pedantry that would bid us reject the word fittest for our purpose because it is not of native origin ought to be strenuously resisted’; and I am sure that he would advocate an equally strenuous resistance to the pedantry which would impose upon us words of alien tongue still clad in foreign uniform.

Mark Twain once remarked that ’everybody talks about the weather and nobody does anything about it’. And many people think that we might as well hope to direct the course of the winds as to order the evolution of our speech. Some words have proved intractable. In the course of the past two centuries and a half, scores and even hundreds of French words have domiciled themselves in English without relinquishing their French characteristics. Consider the sad case of elite (which Byron used a hundred years ago), of encore (which Steele used two hundred years ago) of parvenu (which Gifford used in 1802), of ennui (which Evelyn used in 1667), and of nuance (which Walpole used in 1781).

No one hesitates to accept these words and to employ them frequently. Ennui and nuance are two words which cannot well be spared, but which we are unable to reproduce in our native vocalization. Their French pronunciation is out of the question. What can be done? Can anything be done? We may at least look the facts in the face and govern our own individual conduct by the results of this scrutiny. There is no reason why we should not accept what is a fact; and it is a fact that ennui has been adopted. So long ago as 1805 Sidney Smith used it as a verb and said that he had been ennuied. Why not therefore frankly and boldly pronounce it as English ennwee? Why not forswear French again and pronounce nuance without trying vainly to preserve the Gallic nasality of the second n newance? And as for a third necessary word, timbre. I can only register here my complete concurrence with the opinion expressed in Tract N of the Society for Pure English that the ’English form of the French sound of the word would be approximately tamber; and this would be not only a good English-sounding word, like amber and chamber, but would be like our tambour, which is tympanum, which again is timbre’.

Why should not séance (which was used by Charles Lamb in 1803) drop its French accent and take an English pronunciation see-ance? Why should not garage and barrage rhyme easily with marriage? Marriage itself came to us from the French; and it sets a good example to these two latest importations. Logic would suggest this, of course; but then logic does not always guide our linguistic practices. And here, again, I am glad to accept another suggestion which I find in Tract N, that naivety be recognized and pronounced as an English word, and that ’a useful word like malaise could with advantage reassume the old form “malease” which it once possessed’.

I have asked why these thoroughly acclimated French words should not be made to wear our English livery; and to this question Dr. Bradley supplied an answer when he declared that ’culture is one of the influences which retard the process of simplification’. A man of culture is likely to be familiar with one or more foreign languages; and perhaps he may be a little vain of his intimacy with them. He prefers to give the proper French pronunciation to the words which he recognizes as French; and moreover as the possession of culture, or even of education, does not imply any knowledge of the history of English or of the principles which govern its growth, the men of culture are often inclined to pride themselves on this pedantic procedure.

It is, perhaps, because the men of culture in the United States are fewer in proportion to the population that American usage is a little more encouraging than the British. Just as we Americans have kept alive not a few old words which have been allowed to drop out of the later vocabulary of the United Kingdom, so we have kept alive at least to a certain extent the power of complete assimilation. Restaurant, for example, is generally pronounced as though its second syllable rhymed with ‘law’, and its third with ‘pant’. Trait is pronounced in accordance with its English spelling, and therefore very few Americans have ever discovered the pun in the title of Dr. Doran’s book, ’Table Traits, and something on them’. I think that most Americans rhyme distrait to ‘straight’ and not to ‘stray’. Annexe has become annex; programme has become program although the longer form is still occasionally seen; and sometimes coterie and reverie are ‘cotery’ and ’revery’ in accord with the principle which long ago simplified phantasie to fantasy. Charade like marmalade rhymes with made. Brusk seems to be supplanting brusque as risky is supplanting risque. Elite is spelt without the accent; and it is frequently pronounced ell-leet. Cloture is rarely to be discovered in American newspapers; closure is not uncommon; but the term commonly employed is the purely English ‘previous question’.

In the final quarter of the nineteenth century an American adaptation of a French comic opera, ‘La Mascotte’, was for two or three seasons very popular. The heroine of its story was believed to have the gift of bringing luck. So it is that Americans now call any animal which has been adopted by a racing crew or by an athletic team (or even by a regiment) a mascot; and probably not one in ten thousand of those who use the word have any knowledge of its French origin, or any suspicion that it was transformed from the title of a musical play.

I regret, however, to be forced to confess that I have lately been shocked by a piece of petty pedantry which seems to show that we Americans are falling from grace at least so far as one word is concerned. Probably because many of our architects and decorators have studied in Paris there is a pernicious tendency to call a ‘grill’ a grille. And I have seen with my own eyes, painted on a door in an hotel grille-room; surely the ultimate abomination of verbal desolation!

I may, however, record to our credit one righteous act the perfect and satisfactory anglicizing of a Spanish word, whereby we have made ‘canyon’ out of canon. And I cannot forbear to adduce another word for a fish soup, chowder, which the early settlers derived from the French name of the pot in which it was cooked, chaudière.