France bans the word ‘hashtag’

Sacré bleu! France has added hashtag to its list of banned English words, writes Cathy Relf.

The Académie française, the state body appointed to protect the French language, has announced that the English word is to be eschewed in favour of the French mot-dièse.

Mot-dièse has attracted some criticism, partly because it can’t actually be written as a Twitter hashtag itself, as it contains a hyphen. It’s also inaccurate, say its critics, because dièse is the name of the musical sharp symbol (♯), which is vertically aligned, unlike the slanted hashtag symbol (#).

Nevertheless, hashtag has joined the list of 5,509-and-counting English words that the Académie says must be avoided in official government documents, as well as by schoolteachers and the media.

Other frowned-upon English terms, and their French replacements, include:

breaking news – informations de dernière minute
early adopter – acheteur pionnier
email address – adresse de courrier électronique
spin doctor – façonneur d’image
usability/user friendliness – convivialité
virtual shopping – achat sur simulation électronique.

French language in crisis

The list of banned words is part of a drive by the French government to reverse the trend for adopting Anglo Saxon words, following a report in 2008 that found the French language was in ‘deep crisis’.

The report called for an ‘offensive to ensure that French is developed in a confident manner’. It said: ‘This is a battle in which the real stakes are measured in terms of both political influence and economic growth.’

But can government policies really influence the words that the public adopt and use? Only time will tell. The main challenge may be that the English words on the list are catchier and more succinct than the recommended French alternatives. Courrier électronique rather than email – is that really going to catch on?

Herve Bourges, one of the authors of the report,  himself admits: ‘In France, the concept of Francophonie appears retrogressive, obsolete and unheard especially among the younger generations.’

Wordy French alternatives to snappy English terms are unlikely to help change this.

French words in English

French and English have been borrowing, adopting and adapting words from each other for nearly 1,000 years, since the Norman conquest in 1066. More than a third of all English words are derived directly or indirectly from French, and it’s estimated that English speakers who have never studied French already know 15,000 French words. Don’t believe it? Test yourself here.

Some of the words and phrases that we’ve borrowed or adapted from French are easy to spot – raison d’être, bon appétit and pied-à-terre, for example – while others are less immediately obvious, such as entrepreneur, sergeant and repartee.

Often, the French words we use add a little je ne sais quoi, a touch of the risqué or simply an élégance lacking in the English equivalent.

‘Fat liver’, for example, doesn’t sound anywhere near as appetising as foie gras. Touché, originally a fencing term, has a succinctness that ‘you’ve got me’ can’t touch. A rendezvous sounds sexier than a meeting, a soiree more intriguing than a party.  ‘Brown-haired woman’ lacks the sauciness of brunette (a word rarely used in modern French). And in the case of blond(e), we’ve not only adopted the word, but the masculine/feminine spelling convention too.

A fair exchange?

English would certainly be a less interesting and expressive language if we were to somehow root out and remove the French influence. Perhaps there is a trade to be had. As we benefit from the French gift for elegance, so they can benefit from our gift for getting to the point.

Or, is the Académie right to take action? Has the exchange now become too weighted in one direction, and are measures needed to protect the French language? What do you think?

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