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

Encore and mise-en-scene are only two of a dozen or a score of French words not infrequently used in English and misused by being charged with meanings not strictly in accord with French usage. ‘Levee’ is one; the French say lever. Nom de plume is another; the French say nom de guerre. Musicale also is rarely, if ever, to be found in French, at least I believe it to be the custom in Paris to call an ‘evening with music’ a soiree musicale. If musicale is too serviceable to demand banishment, why should it not drop the e and become musical? When Theodore Roosevelt, always as exact as he was vigorous in his use of language, was President of the United States, the cards of invitation which went out from the White House bore ‘musical’ in one of their lower corners; so that the word, if not the King’s English, is the President’s English.

To offset this I must record with regret that the late Clyde Fitch once wrote a one-act play about a manicurist, and as this operator on the finger-nails was a woman he entitled his playlet, the Manicuriste; and he did this in spite of the fact that, as a writer fairly familiar with French, he ought to have known the proper term manucure.

Then there is double-entendre, implying a secondary meaning of doubtful delicacy. Dryden used it in 1673, when it was apparently good French, although it has latterly been superseded in France by double-entente which has not, however, the somewhat sinister suggestion we attach to double-entendre. I noted it in Trench’s ‘Calderon’ (in the 1880 reprint); and also in Thackeray; and both Calderon and Thackeray were competent French scholars.

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to consider nee, put after the name of a married woman and before the family name of her father. The Germans have a corresponding usage, Frau Schmidt, geboren Braun. There is no doubt that nee is convenient, and there is little doubt that it would be difficult to persuade the men of culture to surrender it or even to translate it. To the literate ‘Mrs. Smith, born Brown’, might seem discourteously abrupt. But the French word is awkward, nevertheless, since the illiterate often take it as meaning only ‘formerly’, writing ‘Mrs. Smith, nee Mary Brown’, which implies that this lady had been christened before she was born. And there is a tale of a profiteer’s wife who wrote herself down as ’Mrs. John Smith, New York, nee Chicago’.

Yet the French themselves are not always scrupulous to follow nee with only the family name of the lady. No less a scholar than Gaston Paris dedicated his Poètes et Penseurs to ’Madame James Darmesteter, nee Mary Robinson’. Perhaps this is an instance of the modification of the strict meaning of a word by convention because of its enlarged usefulness when so modified.

Gaston Paris must be allowed all the rights and privileges of a master of language; but his is a dangerous example for the unscholarly, who are congenitally careless and who are responsible for soubriquet instead of sobriquet, for a l’outrance instead of a outrance, and for en deshabille instead of en deshabille. The late Mrs. Oliphant in her little book on Sheridan credited him with gaieté du coeur. It was long an American habit to term a railway station a depot (totally anglicized in its pronunciation deep-oh); but depot is in French the name for a storehouse, and it is not or not customarily the name of a railway station. It was also a custom in American theatres to give the name of parquette-seats to the chairs which are known in England as ‘stalls’; and in village theatres parquette was generally pronounced ‘par-kay’.

There are probably as many in Great Britain as in the United States who speak the French which is not spoken by the French themselves. Affectation and pretentiousness and the desire to show off are abundant in all countries. They manifest themselves even in Paris, where I once discovered on a bill of fare at the Grand Hotel Irisch-stew a la francaise. This may be companioned by a bill of fare on a Cunard steamer plying between Liverpool and New York, whereon I found myself authorized to order tartletes and cutletes. When I called the attention of a neighbour to these outlandish vocables, the affable steward bent forward to enlighten my ignorance. ’It’s the French, sir,’ he explained; ‘tartlete and cutlete is French.’

That way danger lies; and when we are speaking or writing to those who have English as their mother-tongue there are obvious advantages in speaking and writing English, with no vain effort to capture Gallic graces. Readers of Mark Twain’s Tramp Abroad will recall the scathing rebuke which the author administered to his agent, Harris, because a report which Harris had submitted was peppered, not only with French and German words, but also with savage plunder from Choctaw and Feejee and Eskimo. Harris explained that he intruded these hostile verbs and nouns to adorn his page, and justified himself by saying that ’they all do it. Everybody that writes elegantly’. Whereupon Mark Twain, whose own English was as pure as it was rich and flexible, promptly read Harris a needed lesson: ’A man who writes a book for the general public to read is not justified in disfiguring his pages with untranslated foreign expressions. It is an insolence toward the majority of the purchasers, for it is a very frank and impudent way of saying, “Get the translations made yourselves if you want it this book is not written for the ignorant classes".... The writer would say that he uses the foreign language where the delicacy of his point cannot be conveyed in English. Very well, then, he writes his best things for the tenth man, and he ought to warn the other nine not to buy his book.’

The result of these straight-forward and out-spoken remarks is set forth by Mark Twain himself: ’When the musing spider steps upon the red-hot shovel, he first exhibits a wild surprise, then he shrivels up. Similar was the effect of these blistering words upon the tranquil and unsuspecting agent. I can be dreadfully rough on a person when the mood takes me.’