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July 13, 2003 - Mail

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I do send out some odd email, and receive equally odd email in return.  Here I will print some of it, with, now and then, my responses.   Before I post anyone's writing, I will ask your permission to post your comments and whether I should use your name or not, or use an alias you wish to use.
Received recently - A discussion of the French between parties in Atlanta and Paris, moderated here in Hollywood, considering Montreal and many other topics

This last week "La Commission Generale de Terminologie et de Neologie" of the Académie Française, overseer of the French language in France, adopted a new word into French.  It seems they were seeking a French word for email (e-mail).  So they decided on the word "courriel"  - seven years after it was first used by University of Montreal literature professor Jean-Claude Guedon.  The word "courriel" recently appeared in the language commission's official publication, and use of the term will be mandatory throughout the French government.  So chalk one up for the rubes in Canada, those folks the Parisians love to ridicule.

I passed this long to my friends in an email, or "courriel" as it were.

I received this from Rick Brown in Atlanta -

Oh, for godsake!  They chose "courriel" to officially replace "mail" as the word for "e-mail"?  Why not settle on "e-mail" as the word for "e-mail," like everyone else has done?

Just when we over here are ready to celebrate the demise of all that anti-French "freedom fries" stuff, which made us look like the hillbilly xenophobic goofballs we have such a propensity to sometimes revert to being, those guys over there slap a lampshade on their collective head and start doing a hoochy-coochy dance!  If you're looking for something of which to be proud of in our country, look no further than the non-existence of a commission that "oversees" the English language in the United States!

Reading that, Ric Erickson in Paris wrote this -

You wouldn't believe the French word for 'lampshade.'

The so-called 'English' language in the United States has been headed for nowhere since the TV era.  Listen to pre-'50s radio, hear pre-'50s movies, talk to pre-'50s people, and you'll know something serious is missing.  The language has gone stone dead.

On behalf of myself, rather than the Apple Computer Company, I propose 'iMail' instead of the clumsy 'e-mail.'  Failing acceptance of 'iMail,' I suggest keeping plain 'email.' An alternative could be 'iPost.'

As far as I know the article put out by the Canadian Post is flat wrong.  The word may be correct, but the power of the language commission to put new words across is strewn with failures.

The actual term for email here that has been tried for some years is - wait for it - it is...  'Mél'

I have not actually ever heard any living person say this word; I have only seen it written occasionally over the last couple of years.  (Not before 2000.)  An influential Paris newsletter used it, but I suspect they will not be with us when September returns.

The most successful computer term to be accepted as a French equivalent, has been 'logiciel' - to replace the inelegant word 'software.'  The French word for computer is 'ordinateur.'  However, when dealing with anybody in the business, you can use all the usual US terms, which are considered 'chic.'  Here, you are on top - 'avec tendence' - trendy - if you know and can use the US jargon.

A term like "courriel" has been coined to foist on the great unwashed, the newbies to the 'Net here. The French post office - 'La Poste' - offers free email addresses to anybody who asks for one.  I'll check one of their brochures to see what they call it. They don't call themselves, 'Les Courrieurs.'

regards from decadent Paris, ric

So Ric in Paris reports no one there who is 'avec tendence' - trendy - uses the term "courriel" at all.  And he proposes an alternative that is interesting.  And he points out anyone who does computer things there get "chic points" for using the English term for things.

Background: The Académie Française (literally, French Academy) is a French body founded in 1560 when Charles IX granted the charter for an "academy of Music and Poetry" to the poet Antoine de Baïf and the musician, Gourville, who named it "Académie Française."  On 10 February 1635 Cardinal Richelieu under Louis XIII expanded it into a national academy for the artistic elite.  The Académie, located in Paris - the south end of the Pont des Arts bridge - is the official authority on usage, vocabulary, and grammar.  Pretentious busybodies who don't know jack shit about computers?  Perhaps so.  But they do have a website -- www.academie-francaise.fr - of all things.

Someone in the late eighteenth century suggested to Samuel Johnson, that chubby fellow with gout who wrote our first dictionary, that we ought to have such a body to keep English pure.  He scoffed and said things about how language changes and develops with the times and that sort of thing, then scratched his cat Hodge behind the ears and dozed off again.

The French have been "protecting the purity of the language" for centuries.  Except on "les week-ends" when one presumes they relax at home and play with the kids.  And I thought in France a lampshade was an "abat-jour" - a thinger that "cuts down the day."  See - abattre - "to cut down" - as in abattoir (slaughterhouse).  Language can be so odd.

So Rick (Atlanta) saw Ric's comments from Paris and added.

So the French post office - 'La Poste' - offers free email addresses to anybody who asks for one.

Aha!  But only if you ask for it by name?

Anyway, thank you, Ric, for showing that the French are not nearly as nutty as some of them would have us think!

I added this, "Oh, but they are nutty in their own way.  As are we all."

And Ric in Paris added this, for Rick in Atlanta:

Yes, but the French are French nutty.  Often you have to be French to appreciate it.  At the moment, the Prime Minister and several hundred thousand festival fans do not appreciate it.  The show, apparently, does not have to go on.

As for asking for an Email adresss at La Poste - Sure. Ask for 'email' if you want one.  If you ask for a "courriel" account, they'll call 'les flics' (not 'fliques!') to take you away to Saint-Anne to have your brain-pan examined. (Saint-Anne, the booby-hatch, is just around the corner from La Poste on Avenue Leclerc. The prison, La Sante, is only slightly further away.)

But to be absolutely correct, the French are far nuttier than most non-French people imagine.  It is the original home of 'Catch-22,' and you "can't get there from here."

Small wonder the French insist on maintaining their cultural 'exception.' Without it, they would be Bulgarians.

And to me he wrote -

Good for you - for abat-jour.  It is a reflector that 'abats' the light from electric lamps.  Its second meaning is, 'souplrail incliné pour l'éclairage des sous-sols.'  And I am not going to look up 'souplrail.'

For Académie Française fans, here is sort of an update.  They are working on the definitive dictionary of the French language. When last heard from, they had been working on 'M' or 'P' since about 1995.  Since the Académie is somewhat leisurely, there is this special commission set up to deal with current (only five years old) usage.  They got 'logiciel' out of the gate pretty fast, about 1985.  I am pretty sure they picked it up from the language people in Quebec, who have been responsible for some rather clever new words.

There is also a move afoot to teach French in schools here.  There has been some recent dismay concerning students' inability to understand it, read it, speak it, write it, and so forth.  Which is a disaster, because the highest intellectual attainment in France is winning the annual nation-wide spelling contest.  The winner gets a medal from the President.

A final thought to consider - at the dawn of the machine age, the French were not to be sneezed at as inventors.  Thus in English there are an incredible number of French words routinely used for machines, cars, airplanes, etc.  One problem is that cars don't have a chassis any more.  However, Airbus makes up for this.

My reply to all was this -

Curious stuff here.  Particularly regarding the proximity of Saint-Anne (the Bedlam Hospital of Paris) to La Sante (the Sing-Sing of Paris) to the Post Office where the person at the counter may or may not know what a "courriel" may or may not be.  And "souplrail" is a mystery to me, and to http://www.systranbox.com/ which I use for quick translations when the cat is sleeping on my pile of dictionaries.

As for France being the Catch-22 place where you can't get there from here, it is the French that give us the word bureaucracy after all.  Yes, the Avignon theater festival is now dead for this year, as is the Aix music festival and others.  I see the Rolling Stones managed to stage their Paris concerts this week in spite of the labor unrest everywhere, by asking for volunteer "roadies" to get them set up.  There were protests to that move, Ric, were there not? 

As for the Académie Française being slow with their dictionary, well, the OED took forever to get past "M" by 1933 and who knows when they'll get completely done - but "completely done" is not possible of course if the language is always in flux.

As for other language notes, Ossining, New York, up the river from the city, is where one finds the prison one calls "Sing-Sing" - when you're sent "up the river" you don't have to try to pronounce the name of that little town where you'll be staying for a time.

Other trivia regarding Avenue Leclerc.  My nephew in our army, who knows his Abrams tanks real well, tells me the French battle tank, the Leclerc, is pretty nifty.  The French have had, and still have, considerable engineering talent.  My other nephew in Ohio as I mentioned, the executive pilot, flies that Falcon built in Toulouse - a fine airplane.  And now that Renault owns controlling interest in the Nissan car empire, perhaps we shall see some cool French-Asian fusion automobiles coming our way.


So that was this week's emails, or some of them.

You can check out Ric Erickson's Paris website here: http://www.metropoleparis.com

Rick Brown is responsible for this Atlanta website: http://www.city-directory.com/