Translating Macron’s profanity? Quel bordel…

A few weeks after railing against les fainéants (‘slackers’), French President Emmanuel Macron’s latest remark on workers has been keeping the French media busy. While he was visiting a factory on the brink of closure last Thursday, a comment he made privately to a few of his aides was caught on camera:

Il y en a certains, au lieu de foutre le bordel, ils feraient mieux d’aller regarder s’ils ne peuvent pas avoir de postes là-bas…

Profanity is one of the areas of language where connotation and expressivity contribute most to meaning, which makes its passage into other languages difficult. So as the story of Mr Macron’s ‘sharp tongue’ made it to the foreign press, I thought it interesting to look at the various English translations of the colourful idiom foutre le bordel.

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U.S. strike on Syria: is ‘retaliate’ the right word?

Following the recent American strike on a Syrian military air base, several major American media outlets have used the terms ‘retaliate’ or ‘retaliation’ to describe the operation. But, whatever people’s opinions of the desirability of that strike may be, are those the right words?

New York Times caption, April 7, 2017

Washington Post headline, April 7, 2017

The New Oxford American Dictionary‘s definition of ‘retaliate’ goes like this:

verb [ no obj. ]
make an attack or assault in return for a similar attack: the blow stung and she retaliated immediately.
• [ with obj. ] archaic repay (an injury or insult) in kind: they used their abilities to retaliate the injury.

It takes its etymological roots in the Latin talis, meaning ‘such-like’, and the prefix re-. Talis is also at the root of another Latin word, talio, -onis, meaning ‘a punishment or penalty similar to the injury done’, as in the famous talion law, ‘a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye’.

The use of such a word, therefore, seems wrong on two levels, as the American strike did not occur in return for a similar attack. On the one hand, last Tuesday’s Syrian operation did not target the U.S., which disqualifies the ‘in return’ element contained in the prefix re-. On the other, the American strike was not of ‘a similar kind’, as it — thankfully — did not involve chemical weapons.

So what about ‘response’, another frequent word in media accounts of the American operation?

New York Times, April 7, 2017

A probably better-chosen word, although not in its first sense of ‘an answer, a reply’, but rather in the OED’s second sub-definition:

1.b transf. and fig. An action or feeling which answers to some stimulus or influence; spec. in Psychol. (freq. opposed to stimulus), an observable reaction to some specific stimulus or situation; the fact of such reaction.

Interestingly, President Trump did not use either word, preferring instead to insist on the ‘national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons’. In doing so, he may have been avoiding a legally slippery path.

The prescriptivist candidate (French style)

(This is a translated version of my post ‘Les travers du candidat au prescriptivisme‘.)

Tuesday, March 29th 2016: I’m home from a day of teaching, during which I have endeavoured to initiate students of all levels to the intricacies and subtleties of language and linguistics. While I wait for the kettle to boil, I absentmindedly flip the pages of M, the magazine edition of Le Monde, which has been sitting on the kitchen table since Saturday, waiting for five minutes of quasi idleness. There, Lucien Jedwab’s column catches my eye; the former chief copyeditor of Le Monde has evidently taken over the position of defender of la bonne langue, previously held by journalist Dominique Pourquery. Continue reading

Les travers du candidat au prescriptivisme

(An English version of this post is available here.)

Mardi 29 mars 2016 : je rentre d’une journée d’enseignement où j’ai tenté d’initier des étudiants de tous niveaux aux complexités et aux nuances de la langue et de la linguistique et, pendant que bout l’eau de mon café (instantané, j’avoue cette faute de goût), je feuillette distraitement M, le magazine du Monde, qui attend depuis samedi que le nombre des copies, des courriels en souffrance, des préparations de cours et autres tâches se réduise suffisamment pour me laisser cinq minutes de quasi-liberté. Là, mon œil s’attarde sur la chronique de Lucien Jedwab, ancien chef du service correction du Monde, qui a manifestement pris dans ces pages la succession de Dominique Pourquery au poste de défenseur de la bonne langue. Continue reading

😂 is not a word. Is it?

WOTY-emoji-banner-1200x330

A few days ago Oxford Dictionaries voted an emoji, ‘Face With Tears of Joy’, as its Word of the Year 2015, and the lingosphere was soon atwitter with reactions ranging from the puzzled to the outraged. Is the Word of the Year even a word? The WOTY is NOT a word! And the people at Oxford Dictionaries got their share of (not-so-)smart insults. Arguably, they were looking for trouble, and probably a bit of buzz too. After all, if they wanted to highlight the fact that ‘2015 saw [the] use [of emoji], and use of the word emoji, increase hugely’, they might as well have voted emoji as WOTY. Continue reading

Here be data

Data is king. In linguistics as well as in any other discipline, no serious claim can be made without solid data. And surely the revolution of Big Data hails a new dawn for linguistics research too: the computer-assisted ability to compile humongous corpora, crunch inordinately vast amounts of data and watch previously unseen patterns emerge has some magical appeal.

Yet, big or not, data and its mathematical exploitation isn’t everything. I was reminded of this by two recent developments in language study.

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