Pardon our lousy French
Message from copy editor to editor:
“Do we really want to use ‘deja vu’ and ‘du jour’ in the same paragraph’? If we do, the first needs to be déjà vu, and I will fix it. But that’s a lot of French for Spotsylvania County.”
Message from editor to copy editor:
“I agree. You can change the second. I should have checked the accent marks. I assumed that [name of writer] would check them before using something so recherché.”
Recherché—get it? No? You don’t remember that recherché means rare, exotic or obscure? I didn’t either, till I looked it up. Then I thought it was pretty funny.
Anyway, the “du jour” became “of the day,” but we did use “déjà vu,” correctly accented.
I am not absolutely opposed to using a foreign phrase in newspaper copy when it’s apt, especially when the English translation is awkward or fails to bring across the concept. “Déjà vu” is a good example. “A feeling of having already experienced the present situation” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. And our readers aren’t stupid. Even those unfamiliar with the phrase could have figured it out in context.
But as a copy editor, I feel my anxiety rise whenever I encounter an attempted foreign phrase in newspaper copy. I say “attempted” because often, the people who want to use the phrase don’t know how to write it correctly. But they don’t know that they don’t know how to write it correctly, and—I’m sorry to have to tattle here—they don’t look it up.
I forget who it was who died—someone famous and revered—but in marking the person’s passing, our homepage for several hours carried the heading “in memorium.”
Respectful. Solemn. And wrong. The Latin phrase is “in memoriam.”
The -am and -um of Latin are fraught with peril. Don’t even get me started on “ad nauseam.” Oh, too late, I’m on it now. It’s “nauseam,” not “nauseum,” despite the fact that we occasionally screw it up.
In a food story some years ago, the wire service reporter noted that a certain roast beef sandwich was traditionally served “with au jus.” Yeah, I knew what the writer meant. But “with au jus” means “with with the juice.” With with. What what?
But even though I know how dangerous it can be to allow reporters and editors to use foreign phrases, I sometimes let them slip right by. I did so one recent night as we raced to get the last sports pages sent on deadline.
A day or so later, this letter landed on my desk. Let’s just say justice was served.
While Tuesday’s (29 May) Sports page headline for the article on Simon’s win at the French Open surely added to the overall worldliness of The Free Lance-Star and its diverse readers, I fear our community’s francophones will have found the gender confusion disappointing. The expression is “Vive la France,” not “le.”
Merci malgré tous,
Ronald White III
Rappahannock Reg. Jail
P.O. Box 3300
Stafford, VA 22555