French Alert: Kiss Hashtag Good-bye

Among Western nations, France must be one of the few that has an active “Language Police,” although they have a fancier name for it: The Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologisme, “The General Committee for Terminology and New Words,” which seems like a bureaucratic heaven for people who might not be big fans of new things.

Be that as it may, in 2011 this illustrious group banned the use of “Faceboook” and “Twitter” in any news coverage, unless the word was germane to the story. In 2003 they also decreed that “e-mail” was a threat to the pristine French language, so they substituted it with “courriel,” which actually sounds cooler to me.

The latest victim to fall under the sharp knife of the “Language Police” is the beloved “hashtag” of Twitter fame. From now on, in all official French documents, that ignominious word is to be referred to as “mot-dièse,” a Gallic substitute literally meaning “sharp word.” The French, being the masters of self-ridicule type of humor, obviously reacted (on Twitter, of course). Here is a sample:

Je teste un nouveauté de la langue française : le . Je préférais  

“I tested a novelty of the French language: the #motdièse. I prefer #hashtag #riplittleword.” Very funny…

One other user  said, “We will not say Facebook anymore but ‘Livre des facies.’”

Having grown up under a heavy military dictatorship for 20 years in Brazil, I am naturally suspicious of Police anywhere. I know, it is a conditioned response. I understand they play a crucial role and I have some good friends who are in Law enforcement, but to this day whenever I see an uniformed policeman anywhere my first impulse is “RUN!”

Now you can imagine how I must feel about the thought of a “Language Police.” It is not only irritating, it can be downright dangerous. In a crisis moment, having a language apparatus that is incapable of producing a certain type of sound, or carrying a dialect that betrays your origin, can land one in deep trouble (Peter on the night he betrayed Jesus) or even determine whether you will live or die (the Ephraimites in Judges 12, who looked exactly like the Gileadites and yet could not say “shiboleth,” instead they kept saying “siboleth,” and thus 42 thousand of them perished on that day — the first case in recorded history of death by language malfunction).

The modern-day equivalent of a “shiboleth” type of war was what happened in 1990’s Rwanda. I have friends who are Tutsi and friends who are Hutu. They all tell me that you can’t tell by looking whether one is a Hutu or a Tutsi, yet in a matter of 100 days 800 thousand people (or more) were massacred, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutu who favored the peace accord. Now I am not saying that language particularity was the only issue there, but it must have played a part.

Make no mistake about it: in the case of the Ephraimites and the Rwanda genocide, the people drawing the war strategies were not the war generals, they were the language and cultural purists — those who could tolerate no deviation from “the norm.” That is one of the dangers of a department dedicated to protect a national language. It is not the good intention of preserving one’s own, it is the ever-present potential misuse and manipulation of information that scares me.

French, by the way, ironically, has given a wealth of contribution to many of the languages of the world, including English (and my soul language, Portuguese). If the same rule they are now applying to their own language, would somehow be applied to English, for example, we would (at least I would) all of a sudden realize how much we love the French!

Here is just a small sample I just quickly recalled from memory:

“Cordon bleu” would now have to be “blue ribbon.” Would it taste the same?

Les Misérables would have to be “The Wretched Ones,” and north Americans would be forever robbed of the joy of their favorite pastime — coming up with a nickname lest they be forced to pronounce a foreign-sounding name. “Le Mis.” (How many times after I tell people my first name, do I hear them say, “Can I call you Ivan?” or “Do you have a nickname?”).

“Carte Blanche” is now “blank card,” but it just doesn’t feel like having the same all-encompassing power to say “blank card,” does it?

“La vie en rose,” the famous movie (and song by Edith Piaf) becomes “life in pink,” which sounds more like an advertisement for a new Barbie doll.

“Papier-mâché”  is “chewed paper.” Now imagine explaining that to your kindergartners when you are telling them about the materials you will be using for today’s craft…

Our beloved “dessert,” from the French “desservir,” “clear the table,” “unserve” (it was the last course served) would suffer significant damage if suddenly we told the guests, “Now we are going to unserve you.”

“Moulin rouge”  is “red windmil;” “aide-de-camp” is “field helper,” which sounds like a “farm hand,” “Brigadier” is “the one who fights,” a title any brawler at a bar would gladly embrace.

Companies would have to say good-bye to the title of their top executive — C.E.O. (Chief Executive Officer). All three of these words come to English via French via Latin. Good luck getting rid of that one!

Two of my favorite French words, “fatigue” and “milieu” would have to be banned. “Medium” or “surroundings” for “milieu” just doesn’t cut it and I would get fatigued just trying to say “that which causes weariness.”

By the way, all the words that have “petty” in them (“Petty Officer,” “petty coat,” etc.) are also of French derivation, as is “coat” (from French “cote”) and “officer,” “oficier,” by way of Latin.

And let’s not even talk about one of the most popular and expressive French words, starting with “m_ _ _,” which has an equivalent in English starting with “s” (let the reader understand), which unfortunately did not make it into the English language, which is a shame because had it made it into English, we would all be getting mad at each other so much more poetically…

By the way, I went to the website of the Journal Officiel, which broadcasts these official pronouncements of the “Language Police,” and to my surprise I found a link on the upper left corner with the words FAQ. I still have to find what that stands for in French… Tell me if you know, s’il vous plaît.

I think I have caused enough trouble with this post, so c’est fini. Sorry, “It’s finished.”

Ivanildo C. Trindade