Pardon my French

by Mellissa Martinez

Have you ever said pardonne moi instead of ‘excuse me’ or an extravagant au revoir, bon voyage for ‘goodbye, have a great trip’? We English speakers love to fancy up our conversations with French. As it turns out, this is nothing new—people have been doing it for centuries. 

Although a word may be firmly planted in the English lexicon, it often still carries an ancient air of French sophistication. I recently heard a TED talk in which the narrator compared the 2 English adjectives ‘hearty’ and ‘cordial.’ Although they both have the same root meaning, ‘heart,’ and can be used interchangeably, they have very different connotations. Consider the difference between a hearty welcome and a cordial welcome. ‘Hearty,’ in this case brings to mind back slapping-scenes, strong embraces and vociferous hollers, while ‘cordial’ hints at polite smiles, handshakes and how-do-you-dos.  According to the narrator, this difference in undertone can be linked directly to the words’ origins.

The adjective ‘hearty’ has been around a long time. Sometime in the 400s, the Anglos, Saxons and Jutes lived on the Island of Britain, speaking Old English. In the 700s, these Germanic tribes were invaded by the Norse-speaking Danes, who brought many Old Norse words to the small island. The Old Saxon herta, ‘heart,’ combined with the Old Norse, hjarta, ‘heart,’ to become the Old English heorte, ‘heart, breast, soul, spirit, desire and courage.’  ‘Hearty’ developed by the 1300s, meaning ‘courageous, spirited and zealous.’

‘Cordial,’ which comes from the Latin word for heart, cor, came to English from the French.  In 1066, the Normans, Bretons and French invaded Britain and placed a French-speaking king on the throne. Along with the king came a French-speaking aristocracy and a strong bias for the language. Society was split into 2 levels—the French-speaking upper class and the Old English-speaking peasants. Everyone considered French to be the more refined of the 2 languages, even the peasants. When they wanted to sound fancy, they quickly learned to toss in a smattering of French words (not that different from our modern custom of saying Tarjay instead of Target).

‘Cordial,’ which meant ‘from the heart,’ had an almost identical meaning to ‘hearty’ but its connotation was much fancier. This is still true today. ‘Hearty’ is a salt-of-the-earth word used to describe greetings, people and even soups, while ‘cordial’ is refined, polite and a bit distant. When we choose ‘cordial’ over ‘hearty,’ we may be influenced by the prejudice of the early 1000s without even realizing it.

This intonation can be felt in other words as well. Consider the difference between ‘knife and dagger,’ ‘stop and desist,’ ‘fart and flatulence,’ ‘happy and content,’ ‘mistake and error’ and ‘bug and insect.’ Which word sounds fancier to you? Most agree that the latter of each group feels a bit more refined. It’s no surprise that these words are from French, while the first word in each group comes from the languages spoken by Germanic tribes.

I, for one, appreciate the French flair of a word. It gives us variety and adds to the flavor of English. And if, for some reason, a fancy French word doesn’t come to mind, there is another solution—English speakers can simply add the word ‘French’ to boost a word. Think about it…a braid, a maid and a kiss are all a little nicer when preceded by ‘French.’



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