This month we have a pot pourri of interesting and informative insights:
• Use of French words and phrases in English
• Common usage of “like” that is actually incorrect
• More Confusables
French words used in English
Peppering your speech with international words and phrases can enhance the meaning of what you are saying or writing … when used appropriately and in moderation, of course. In fact, many French words and phrases have become part of the English vernacular – banquette, cul-de-sac, femme fatale, faux pas, pied-à-terre and hundreds of others. Beyond those, there are French words and phrases that express an idea more succinctly than the English equivalent. For example, bourgeois is a concise way to refer to someone whose ideas are conventionally middle class; and noblesse oblige is far more succinct than saying “the responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.”
Did you know that many of the words or terms we think are borrowed from French actually exist only in English? For example:
• aide-de-camp – Okay, this is an exception, but in French there are no hyphens.
• double entendre – The modern French reference for dual meanings is à double sens.
• in lieu of – This term for “in place of” would really be au lieu de in French.
• legerdemain – Literally, this would mean “light of hand,” but we use it to mean “sleight of hand.” It is meaningless in French.
• maître d’ – Means head waiter, but true Francophones don’t ever end with d’.
• negligée – In French, this actually refers to a woman who neglects her appearance.
Also, did you know the 1923 origin of the international air-sea rescue term “MAYDAY” comes from the French m’aider – a shortened version of venez m’aider or “come and help me?”
When “like” doesn’t fit
The word “like” is used in many ways. I remember being told as a child that I was using it too often in my speech. “Like, you know, let’s go!” or “He was like, what’s your deal?” But that’s not what I’m talking about here. It may surprise you to know the word “like” should never be used before a clause. Consider the following sentences:
• It looks like it’s going to snow today. (incorrect)
• Drew looks like his uncle. (correct)
• It looks as if it is going to snow this evening. (correct)
In the first example, the words “as if” should have been used instead of “like” (as in example three) or “as though.” In the second example, “like” doesn’t precede a clause — it is part of a comparison between Drew and his uncle, so it is a correct usage. Always use “as though” or “as if” when a subject and verb follow. Like, you should never use “like” in that case 😉
Pairs of words which are often mistaken for each other or used incorrectly, from The New American Dictionary of Difficult Words:
Pathos/Bathos – This pair, from the world of theatrical or literary works, causes confusion, often because “bathos” is less well known. A work with “bathos” shows triteness, sentimentality, or insincerity, while one that displays “pathos” evokes feelings of sadness, sympathy or pity.
Pendant/Pendent – A “pendant” is something that hangs from something else, such as a charm on a neck chain. “Pendent” has several meanings including overhanging, as in “pendent rocks loomed over the narrow path,” and the very similar dangling, as in “a tree of pendent lemons, ripe for picking.” It may also mean awaiting a decision, as in, “our case remains pendent.”
Peremptory/Pre-emptive –“Peremptory” can have four different meanings — stopping action, as in “a peremptory motion was filed”; undeniable, as in “it is the report’s peremptory conclusion”; urgent, as in “a peremptory phone call”; or arrogant, as in “he had an imperious, peremptory demeanor.” “Pre-emptive” refers to action taken in advance to obtain something, as in “a pre-emptive bid,” or to avoid something else happening, as in a “pre-emptive strike.”