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Faux Pas: A No-Nonsense
Guide to Words and Phrases
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Book review
by Elizabeth Potter

Faux Pas: A No-Nonsense Guide to Words and Phrases from Other Languages

Pretentious, moi?
In his famous essay on ‘Politics and the English Language,’ written in 1946, the great English prose writer George Orwell expressed the view that:

Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language.

Sixty years on, English prose is as liberally sprinkled with foreign borrowings as it was in Orwell’s day, and this entertaining little book is a useful guide to some of the most commonly used foreign words and phrases. (In his introduction the author points out that he has omitted terms related to currency and to food, as the latter subject would require a whole book to itself.)

Everyone knows that English is the most prone of all the world languages to assimilate words and phrases from other languages. This book is not about those words that have been fully assimilated, words such as bungalow or shampoo that are used daily and quite unselfconsciously with no awareness of their foreign origins; rather it concentrates on words and phrases that would generally be identified as somehow “foreign”. This might be because they are still pronounced in the original way, or still carry accents; they may often be written in italics or between inverted commas; or they may simply be identified as foreign by most speakers of the language. Some, like quid pro quo or ménage may have been in the language for centuries without quite losing their exotic flavour, while others such as maven, intifada or paparazzo may have been co-opted more recently to fill a perceived linguistic gap.

The book’s scope is impressive. It covers more than 700 words and expressions from 21 different languages. The most frequently borrowed-from languages are French and Latin (with French way out in front), while Afrikaans, Tibetan, Turkish and Welsh offer a single term each (apartheid, lama, kismet and hwyl). Each word and expression is given a guide to the pronunciation (very useful when you have only seen the word in writing), a definition, a citation (mostly from the quality British newspapers but also from magazines and fiction) and a pithy and often amusing explanation of how and why the expression is generally used.

The most entertaining feature of the book is the Pretentiousness Index (or, as the author puts it, ‘the so-called – or soi-disant – Pretentiousness Index’). Each expression is rated for pretentiousness, ranging from zero to extreme, with degrees of pretension indicated by exclamation marks. The author acknowledges that such judgments are subjective, but I found little to disagree with in his comments, some of which are very amusing. For example, of yurt (a kind of Mongolian tent) he writes:

As with other terms in this book, there’s nothing wrong with the yurt in itself. Any pretension involved is in building yourself one and then sitting inside it – for that at least !!! are needed.

As for moi, I’m afraid it’s irredeemably pretentious (it scores the maximum three exclamation marks) but in a self-mocking ironic way:

The little word is almost always followed by a question mark and is a camp, self-deprecating way of undermining a pretentious statement or claim.

Faux Pas: A No-Nonsense Guide to Words and Phrases from Other Languages
by Philip Gooden
published by A&C Black Publishers
ISBN 0713674970