July 11, 2003


The French government has banned its civil service from using the filthy non-French term “email”. From now on they’ll have to use “courriel”, a contraction of “courrier electronique”.

Or maybe it’s a contraction of “computer squirrel”. Alan R.M. Jones responds:

Waiting to hear what the official word for spam will be. I suppose the French have a point, don't they. I mean we mustn't let foreign words infect our culture. I had this very thought yesterday as I read my journal at a local cafe, while waiting to rendezvous with my wife, who looked very chic when she arrived. She had a cordial and I an aperitif. We nibbled on some hors-d'oeuvre before we set off for our favorite restaurant (which has a great a la carte menu) and then the cinema. Afterward, we stopped into a little bistro and had a liqueur. We had grand time, even though our automobile broke down on the route home. Luckily, Jacques Chirac just happened to be going by in his chauffer-driven limousine and he graciously conveyed us the rest of our journey to our apartment.

I’ve already made the appropriate alteration.

Posted by Tim Blair at July 11, 2003 01:40 AM

Not very multicultural of France, is it?

Posted by: Random_Prose at July 11, 2003 at 01:54 AM

And it sounds like they actually made it a law! Makes sense I guess - you probably can't ever fire a French civil servant so having them arrested is the only option left.

Posted by: Sean E at July 11, 2003 at 02:13 AM

Official, suppose, point, infect, culture, & local should also be highlighted, but then it would let the cat out of the bag earlier. It's stunning that the French don't seem to realize that one of the big things that makes English so successful is the fact that we have the largest vocabulary of all languages (with Mandarin having the 2nd) due to our borrowing so many words from all sorts of other cultures. I don't hesitate to bet that the Academie won't even let the poor Gauls use this lame-o "courriel" word as a verb.

Posted by: Flynn at July 11, 2003 at 02:56 AM

I think the French are onto something. I suggest we purge all French words from the English language and I plan to be at the fore of this movement. Here are some proposed alternate words:

journal - writebook
automobile - horseless buggy
limousine - stretched horseless buggy
cheuffeur - stretched horseless buggy driver
restaurant - eathouse
cafe - casual eathouse
bistro - overpriced eathouse
liqueur - girly drink
apertif - mouthwash
escargot - snail
hors-d'ouevre - bait

Posted by: Randy R. at July 11, 2003 at 03:24 AM

Chirac - Jack Shit

Posted by: tim at July 11, 2003 at 03:28 AM

I think the Toubon Law is in effect in the Paris Hotel here in Vegas.

Posted by: Matt from Vegas at July 11, 2003 at 03:29 AM

In a way, you could argue the new official use of the word courriel is also due to their borrowing from another culture.

It has been the official translation for email in Quebec for a few years now. The French just never got around to using it until now.

Posted by: Zoopie at July 11, 2003 at 03:44 AM

Any language which is spoken only under the penalty of law is finished.

Check out the laws in Quebec that require the use of French.

Even in France, folks don't want to speak French. Heh.

Of course, the real story here is the creation of the New Perfected Man. Making another omelette, are we?

Posted by: buzz harsher at July 11, 2003 at 03:57 AM

They have to change the word. "Email" is not just a compilation of mere ingrediants. It's a product of temperment and whethers, nurtured and grounded in the local soil. France does not have the proper conditions to call it "email".

Further more, they don't have the proper conditions for "spam" either. Therefore, I recomend that France start using the term "foie gras" immediately. And since most "email" is "spam" the French could save us all a lot of time by just using the appropriate German word.

Posted by: Charles at July 11, 2003 at 04:11 AM

I think that it was someone on NRO who said that English doesn't just borrow words, sometimes it chases other languages into dark alleys and beats them.

Posted by: Monkeyboy at July 11, 2003 at 04:24 AM

Flynn, French has much more complicated rules of verb conjugation than English does, so it really isn't possible to use any old word as a verb, as we can do in English (though French does allow verbs to be used as nouns -- hence "rendezvous" among numerous other instances). This doesn't really have anything to do with governmental dictat, it's just a natural limitation of the language. It would, of course, be possible to twist courriel around into something like courrieler (je courriel, tu courriels, il courriel, nous courrielons, etc.), which I imagine is what you have in mind, after a fashion. I suppose such a verb could eventually emerge, though as you say it seems unlikely the AF would approve, even if it is a natural evolution of their own bastard invention (though I think courriel may have been invented by the OLF in Québec). I suspect that they'd prefer something like "poster un courriel" or "envoyer par Internet" or something equally belaboured.

It's all a silly academic debate, though, since outside of the portion of the French populace upon which this term will be mandated professionally (which, with the dirigiste state, is admittedly a terribly large proportion of the populace), I don't expect it to gain terribly great currency. Contrary to the popular impression in the anglosphere, AF dictates are taken increasingly less seriously, and anglicisms are rampant in modern French, particularly among the younger generation, where technology has acted as a sort of Trojan horse for linguistic dynamism. Québec, by contrast, is much mroe attached to the "pure" French ("courriel" is universally used, I can attest), even though, idiomatically and culturally, Canadian French is far more anglicized. It's a peculiar paradox, but undeniably true. I have encountered a number of younger French French sojourning in Québec who are utterly baffled by some of the words, traditional and neologoi both, they encounter. The long-standing word for sweater in French, for instance, which is "chandail," is apparently almost totally unknown in France, where the English import "pull" is standard.

I know it's fun to pull the French's legs about this sort of thing, but the plain fact is, we're winning. We can at least be good sports about it.

Posted by: Evan McElravy at July 11, 2003 at 05:21 AM

Maybe they'll call it "Le Junke Courrier Electronique". Or something like that.

Posted by: Bashir Gemayel at July 11, 2003 at 05:21 AM

Monkeyboy, the full original quote and speaker is:

"Not only does the English Language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets." -- American linguist Eddy Peters

Posted by: Warmongering Lunatic at July 11, 2003 at 05:39 AM

Okay, the purging of French from the English language I can deal with. Just don't outlaw the use of caaarrraaaazzzyyy French accents to parody that which must be parodied. Personally, I've always fantasized about being called a "silly Eeenglish K-nighett." But that's just me.

Posted by: Tongue Boy at July 11, 2003 at 06:19 AM


Oh, don't worry, I studied French for a good long time and know that they much prefer compound verb constructions than to simplify and make the noun a verb, especially with anglicismes (such as "faire du shopping," "faire du camping", etc.) So, yes, I imagine that the "proper" way to use courriel would be something like "je t'envoie un courriel" rather than render courriel as "courrieler" (or "courrielir" perhaps?).

As for good sports, I actually will not pretend to be a good sport about it. Every time I hear the Academie come up with some inane way of francophonicizing things like "VCR" and "CD", I want to remind them that at least we're being nice about importing our language -- much nicer than the Normans were when they militarily invaded and imposed their tongue on the English. Things like this happen to languages, and frankly I think the French need to get over their delusional idea of the "purity" of their langauge. All French is is decomposed hick Latin, with Teutonic elements. Nothing terribly pure or special about it.

French spam = "merdelectronique"?

Posted by: Flynn at July 11, 2003 at 06:45 AM

Bill Bryson quoted some linguist as saying, "The last French contribution to the English language was chauffeur."

Posted by: Brian Tiemann at July 11, 2003 at 06:56 AM

I think pure culture theories appeal to the same part of the brain as pure race theories. Ultimately, it's just bigotry.

Posted by: Tim Shell at July 11, 2003 at 07:11 AM

Flynn, as far as being a good sport goes, frankly, I think it irritates the French more to think that we really don't give two merdes. If they thought it was some nefarious scheme hatched from the master council of maudits anglais (and I'm sure a few silly tadpoles do), they would at least be able to get self-righteous about it -- self-righteousness being the chief Gallic pleasure, it seems.

"All French is is decomposed hick Latin, with Teutonic elements."

The historical evolution of Latin into French is actually a rather more interesting story than just that, but really you beg the question: Is there any language whose ancestry cannot be summed up so neatly disparagingly? After all, what is English but extremely decayed hick Germanic with a gaudy show of Romance vocabulary appended to make up for the embarrassing poverty of the native lexicon?

But what the hell, I like it anyway!

Posted by: Evan McElravy at July 11, 2003 at 07:16 AM

Evan, I'm no linguist, but really, doesn't English have more words than any other spoken language? I mean, I know a fair portion of those have been "liberated" from more oppressive linguistic regimes, and about 1/3 are tech terms, but we've got over 1,000,000 words. Hardly seems like an embarrassing poverty to choose from.

Either way, I'm with you - it suits me just fine.

Posted by: E.A. at July 11, 2003 at 07:54 AM

I'd say Greek is a langauge that might not be so succinctly disparaged as French; same goes for Sanskrit and Avesta.

Hey, there's really nothing wrong with decayed hick tongues, English included; it's when decayed hick tongues start pretending they're a pure language of style, grace, and superior culture that my ribbing starts to kick in.

But seriously, English is perhaps a bit more unique than others in that we're like a linguistic Blob, rolling over and absorbing words from any language we can get our hands on and growing stronger from it. We're also generally a looser, more casual tongue. French, in contrast, really fossilized early on in its development to become a static diplo-cultural language, not a common one. It's great for dinner parties and treaties at Versailles, and that's why it stalled.

Posted by: Flynn at July 11, 2003 at 08:30 AM

Randy R's suggestion to purge the lexicon of French borrowings, meritous though it is, would create a monumental problem .The canon of English literature would have to be corrected.I'm another who holds the Baconian possibilty, of Shakepeare's ouvre, one reason is, the author did need a working command of the French language.Meritous it may be, but to butcher Shakespeare, or Chaucer, Tennyson?
Oh, the French are bastards.

Posted by: d at July 11, 2003 at 09:56 AM

I hear the Quebecois word for spam is "pourriel"...(unsure of the spelling, though) "pourri" meaning "rotten".

Posted by: Amy at July 11, 2003 at 10:39 AM

The French do not even have a word for "entrepeneur", as George Bush reminds us.

Posted by: Geoff at July 11, 2003 at 10:44 AM

Instead of defensively translating the language of other people's technology, why aren't the French pioneering new technology, so that the rest of the world has to use French?

Posted by: Rob at July 11, 2003 at 11:10 AM

E.A., Yes, it's true, English has an enormous number of words -- words galore, words for every occasion! However, about 70% and up are Latinate, and that's not even counting esoteric scientific terms (which aren't really even English per se, so much as part of the international scientific vocabulary shared by Russian, German, plus others, and to a lesser extent French). Pick up a dictionary of Anglo-Saxon sometime and flip through if you want to see how limited our ancestors' resources were until the Norman invasion. The German at the base of English language was one of the most backward and impoverished dialects, which is probably why right from the beginning, English speakers have been such great borrowers.

Posted by: Evan McElravy at July 11, 2003 at 11:16 AM

Geoff: wrong, dude.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 11, 2003 at 12:54 PM

Science fiction author H. Beam Piper attributed the evolution of English to Norman men-at-arms trying to pick up Saxon barmaids. Works for me.

Don't forget the Scandinavian influence, in words like fork and egg. Those Danes had a lasting influence, even after the looting and pillaging were done.

How about un email, l'email, (plural: des/les emails), and emailer?

Posted by: Michael Lonie at July 11, 2003 at 01:58 PM

if the French were smart, instead of fighting this, they'd try to inject even more of their words into our language, so that it would live on in the english language when french dies out.

Posted by: Samkit at July 11, 2003 at 02:05 PM

Andrea: D'oh! Too good to be true, I suppose. :-)

Posted by: Geoff at July 11, 2003 at 03:07 PM

As Andrea points out and Geoff acknowledges, the Bush story is another French term: Canard.

Off topic, you know how some posh folks worry about tony area codes in their phone numbers (see Manhattan, the Hamptons, Simpson's New Springfeld Episode)...?

Now I'm worried my ISP number listed here just ain't sexy enough--Thanks Tim for more status anxiety.

Posted by: JDB at July 11, 2003 at 03:48 PM

C'mon Tim,

I think that you need to adopt a more of a laissez-faire attitude...

Posted by: Alasdair Robinson at July 11, 2003 at 08:18 PM

I am no cunning linguist, but I believe it is French for seduction, Italian for singing, English for business and German for warfare.

Posted by: Dave F at July 11, 2003 at 08:25 PM

Maybe they should call it "freedom mail".

Posted by: HA at July 11, 2003 at 10:36 PM

The word bistro is not really French; it is a bastardization of Russian for fast/quickly. My understanding is that Russian solders that chased Napoleon back from Russian wanted their food quickly and they would shout the Russian word bistro to get the people to work faster. And that the style restaurant took its name from this. At least that is what I was told by my Russian teacher, and it seems to make sense to me.


Posted by: Bart at July 12, 2003 at 12:35 AM


I happened to be thinking tonight that there was a big hue and cry about the use of the phrase "freedom fries" by the Americans, but you don't hear a lot about the French using "Le Royale" in place of the quarter-pounder (I think I heard that factoid from Pulp Fiction or some such movie).

Posted by: Andjam at July 12, 2003 at 12:55 AM


So the French have already adopted fast food then. Years before the Anglosphere!

Posted by: Charles at July 12, 2003 at 03:07 AM

While up to 70% of the *words* in English are Latinate, in actual usage the Anglo-Saxon words are used more-- though of course Latinate and Greek words at higher percentages the more educated the medium.

Japanese is an interesting parallel. Native Japanese words are around the same percentage in usage and existence in Japanese as Anglo-Saxon words in English. Sino-Japanese (Chinese derived) words fit the same niche in Japanese as Latinate and Greek words in English. Then Japanese has a lot of European borrowings, beginning with Portuguese in the old days (tabaco = tobacco), and including French, German (zemi for seminar), and quite a bit of English. (American and British)

Posted by: John Thacker at July 12, 2003 at 10:13 PM