The New York Times

The French Have a (Precise and Elegant) Word for It

By William Grimes

During the 2004 presidential primaries, Senator John Kerry , a fluent French speaker, dropped a remark to an inquiring journalist for French television. Life on the campaign trail, he said, was “affreux” — that is, “awful” or “dreadful.” Not “terrible,” the obvious word, but “affreux,” a more subtle choice. For the French, selecting the precise word is the equivalent of a firm handshake or a level look in the eyes in the United States. With two simple syllables, Senator Kerry had passed a crucial French character test.

The unique relationship between French speakers and their language is one of the grand themes in “The Story of French,” a well-told, highly accessible history of the French language that leads to a spirited discussion of the prospects for French in an increasingly English-dominated world. The authors, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, are bilingual Canadians with a sense of mission. They value French as a vehicle of expression uniting 175 million people scattered in a linguistic archipelago across several continents. They also see it as a counterweight to American political and cultural power. Unlike the French elite, which has “thrown in the towel on French,” they are spoiling for a fight. Read more »