In Anybody’s Language

by David Sugarman

The French for “to call a spade a spade” is “appeler un chat un chat”, or “to call a cat a cat”. I was going to add “bizarrely” but it’s no more bizarre than the English version. Actually, in good French writing you might indeed refer to it as a cat at the first time of asking, but you would be advised to have a stock of synonyms at your disposal should it wander back into your text, so you can then call it “the animal”, “the pet”, “the creature”, “the quadruped”, “the beast”, and so on.

The French, you see, are very fond of avoiding repetition, and they go to considerable lengths to get out of repeating themselves, as if they were playing Just A Minute. At first, it seems as if they are highly erudite and are showing off their knowledge, but after a while you realise that the expressions they use are as lazy and clichéd as having a beret and a string of onions denote a Frenchman.

The problem may have started with Molière. The great French playwright and actor got a butchering by a contemporary critic named Boileau when he staged a farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin. Citing a piece of broad comic business involving hiding in a sack, Boileau snootily scoffed that he could no longer recognise “the author of Le Misanthrope,” referencing the satirical comedy of manners written and performed by Molière five years previously. Fair do’s: Boileau’s making his point clearly enough, pinpointing and implicitly praising one of Molière’s finest “serious” plays to highlight his distaste for the laugh-a-minute crowd-pleaser. For the critic, contrast a scene worthy of a bad sitcom with a work deserving a place in the theatrical pantheon and it’s job done.

These days, you regularly come across the expression “l’auteur du Misanthrope”. But it is not used in a pointed way. You don’t ever read “the author of Le Misanthrope was, indeed, a dreadful misogynist,” or, with a hint of irony, “in real life, the author of Le Misanthrope was actually the life and soul of the party.” No: it has become just a lazy way of saying “Molière” without repeating yourself. So you might write something as meaningless as “The author of Le Misanthrope was born in 1622.” It adds nothing, it’s just showing-off, and I find it annoying as hell!

The phenomenon is used by journalists without batting an eye. Two quite frequent examples come to mind. Just to avoid repetition, French Prime Ministers are often known as “le locataire de Matignon” (“the tenant of Matignon”), after the Prime Minister’s official residence. And whenever one of the Prime Ministerial incumbents doubles as a mayor (in France, politicians can and often do hold more than one office), another solution presents itself: the current Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, often makes his second or third appearance in newspaper articles in the guise of “the mayor of Nantes”. Even when the article has nothing to do with the city of Nantes or being a mayor. It’s not like referring to an individual as a “disgraced businessman,” a “former hostage,” or whatever, to give a new-readers-start-here gloss on the identity of the protagonist in a news story; it’s just a smart-alec lazy way of saying “the Prime Minster” without committing the cardinal sin of repeating yourself.

Other clichés abound. You can barely hear a news report of goings-on in Marseille (believe me, there are plenty) without it being called “la Cité phocéenne” (so named because it was a colony of the Greek city of Phocea around 2,600 years ago). And if I had a euro for every weather bulletin in which the highest temperature was forecast for “l’Île de Beauté” I’d be a jillionaire. Don’t look for it on the map: in English we say “Corsica”, and we don’t mind saying it as many times as necessary. But the French don’t want to repeat “Corse”. Of course not…

Although these two expressions are part of everyday French, they usually only occur once the term they are substituting for has been established. Not so, generally speaking, for the blackest of my bêtes noires, the utterly daft idea of calling English “la langue de Shakespeare” and French “la langue de Molière” (him again!). Now, this doesn’t allude to any particular characteristic of the language as used by Shakespeare or Molière (or, indeed, any of a good thirty-odd writers considered as being emblematic of their languages: German is “the language of Goethe”, Russian “the language of Pushkin”, and so on: there’s even a Wikipedia list). It’s just a lazy figure of speech intended to make the writer look clever. Fail! And in the country where the Académie Française effectively fossilised the French language round about the time of Molière, you try explaining to a Frenchman that English has moved on since Shakespeare’s time!