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Wednesday 28 October 2020

Review: Richard Scholar, Émigrés. French Words That Turned English


I saw this book advertised and bought it for two very local and immediate reasons.

I had been writing about emigration and exile and found that every time I used the word emigré Microsoft objected with its red squiggle. I didn’t understand why. I tried taking off the accent but when I did that Microsoft autocorrected to émigré. No, that’s wrong, I thought: emigré is a fully-assimilated loan-word from French and no longer requires the first accent, only the second which deflects readers from a spelling pronunciation. In the same way, we don’t write Hotel with a circumflex (no risk of mis-pronunciation) but do keep an accent on café (automatically supplied by Microsoft) likewise to deter a spelling pronunciation. 

Microsoft also obliges with an accent on CAFÉ,though in French accents over capital letters are optional. For proof, google photographs of “typical Parisian café” - I will use the CAFE DE FLORE to prove my point.    In short, if someone asks you whether written English uses accents, the correct answer is Yes, but sparingly. And in French, Yes, but the rules are a bit different depending on lower case and upper case. But don’t ask me to be more precise because life is short. Anyway, I was curious about a book in English which signalled that it would take the Microsoft plus royaliste que le roi position (it has an American publisher, which may explain everything,  as we shall see later).

The second reason was another piece of writing in progress in which I was having fun with the very last of Vivian Darkbloom’s Notes to Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor where Darkbloom glosses or translates the word gamine as lassie which I found hilarious until I discovered that there are real dictionaries which do the same, no kidding.[1]

Anyway, now to Professor Scholar’s book which isn’t quite how I imagined it but is nonetheless a very informative survey of the history of the partial assimilation / incorporation / …. of one expression and three words of French origin into written, literary English:  À la mode, Naïveté, Ennui, Caprice. (Microsoft now fails to autocorrect and does not provide an accent to À (Scholar does so I have copied) and simply squiggles red under Naïveté which I have also had to bring in line manually to Scholar’s preferred form. (Imagine there’s no loan words, it’s easier when you type ….)

Scholar sticks mainly to literary English and a historical approach to expressions which have stood the test of time but are not so fully assimilated as to no longer  carry any reminder of their origin in French. He is mostly concerned with written contributions to dominant cultures and so you will find here no parlay voos,  voolay voos, san fairy anns, ooh la las, excuzay mwas, comprenay? Nor are there any aperitifs, patays, creps or bonbons (that one now only a retro choice).

He is particularly good at bringing out how the use of a partially-assimilated loan-word can function to gesture to something ineffable or vaguer than a seemingly English equivalent, and ennui provides a good example. Similarly, such words may carry both positive and negative connotations and that may be something which can be exploited in a literary context. Of course, there will often be an element of showing off  and it is hostility to that which generates initial opposition to imported words but which, with the passage of time, no longer arouses  such strong reactions.

Scholar does introduce a theorising element in an endeavour to make sense of and generalise the detail with which he is concerned and he does this with the concept of creolization (which for me is now in free variation with  creolisation; Microsoft accepts both). A more obvious choice might have been cultural appropriation which appears only once (page 133) and I assume to the relief of his publisher, since Scholar’s book celebrates it. (I think cultural appropriation is inevitable and that people should get over it and start enjoying the possibilities it opens up, both ways: subordinate to dominant, dominant to subordinate).

But creolization doesn’t quite work. It already carries baggage which makes it difficult to fit in to Scholar’s argument.

Linguists have categories of trade jargons and pidgins which provide for limited forms of communication. They are found not only on slave plantations but in  ports and trading centres and do not imply any particular relation of power. So, for example, Russenorsk [Russo-Norwegian] was once used among people who were basically equal as traders or whalers. Importantly, such trade jargons and pidgins are created by and used by adults and generational transmission within a family may be limited or non-existent. Some of them have been  extremely limited in geographical and temporal extent like another jargon or pidgin from the Russian far north, Solombala English, which has a Wikipedia page but about which very, very little is known.

But on a slave plantation (to take the central case) a pidgin used for Master-Slave practical communication can evolve rapidly into a much richer creole driven by children from different language backgrounds who need  to communicate with each other about a wide range of topics. The speed of development is enhanced by the simple facts of short life expectancy and accelerated transitions from childhood to adult responsibilities. In this context, parents are not teachers nor do they possess normative authority because they (literally) do not understand their own children - rather in the way that in our own societies children run ahead of their parents in the social media and computing skills which they need.  Creoles are the creations of children who just want to be able to talk about anything and everything with members of their own generation. They are entirely oral creations. But within a few generations a pidgin turned creole can then be given written form and turned into a fully-fledged language with norms - in some cases, even into a national language like Papua’s Tok Pisin - which you can indeed translate as Talk Pidgin but it is now an official national language with a written form and sufficient syntax and vocabulary, and so on.

This assorts badly with the kind of reflexive, knowing borrowings and incorporations with which Scholar is concerned. These are late enhancements to fairly fully-fledged languages. Normative considerations are always in play and so too is power and prestige. One could  talk about cultural capital, a concept of fairly recent and French origin in the work of Pierre Bourdieu who does not appear in Scholar’s book.

Both cultural appropriation and cultural capital as concepts / theories allow one to explore the fact that what Scholar calls creolization is often marked by notable antagonisms. He acknowledges the reality of this repeatedly, quoting from authors who want to resist the invasion of foreign words into their native language. Such active and reflexive conflicts (culture wars) are rather different to more passive and inevitable processes which do exist and which can be talked about in the neutral language of “contact”. So Scholar is not wrong when he  writes of “those words that come into the language from outside and  turn it in new and unexpected directions” (page 169) but such passive processes are only half the story, as he knows and documents. Some things get into our language under the radar, but not all and those which don’t are the only ones talked and written about - until much later when historical linguists start to reconstruct broader histories, and attempt to look under the radar.

Added 9 November 2020: In a structural rather than historical analysis one would try to locate an assimilated word like emigré in its semantic field. That would include words like immigrant, migrant, exile, refugee, asylum seeker. Almost immediately I find myself thinking that the word emigré is involved in at least two semantic oppositions. The first is a matter of social class: poor people do not become emigrés; they become one of the other things on my list (though not exiles). There are no emigré labourers, only migrant ones. The second is about allowing a certain amount of ambivalence. An exile is someone who was forced out of somewhere else and may not welcome the fact that they have ended up where they are. They may be grateful for being allowed in, but they would rather be back where they came from. In contrast, an emigré can at least half-suggest that they moved of their own accord, that they came because they thought they would find their new hosts more congenial than their old neighbours. They may be able to hint that they could have gone elsewhere and that, perhaps, you are lucky to be favoured by their presence. Of course, over time semantic fields shift and though the dimensions of social class and ambivalence may last for a long period, within the field subtle re-arrangements are always going on so that to call someone in 2020 a Russian emigré will carry different connotations to those the expression would have had in 1940. And does a Russian oligarch who makes their home in London need any further characterisation beyond being called an oligarch? Are they outside the semantic field I have just sketched?  

The American publisher. American presses have a bad reputation for wanting to dumb down books for what they assume is a dumb audience; I have written about this[2]. It often involves adding explanatory glosses; for example, at page 114 of this book I read, “The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) …..”.

The author could have pointed out that this is not a junior high school text and that anyone mad enough to read a book about “French Words That Turned English” would probably know Rousseau basics.

It’s not always easy to make the right judgment call. The editorial re-writer sometimes disappears when perhaps more needed. So at page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no footnote that the words are those which the French-speaking painter Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on perhaps his most famous painting. Now that is 101 stuff and might have been rather more worthy of the editor’s skills. But how come it was missed? There is no proper name in the immediate vicinity.

That is one reason why I have concluded - this is hot off the press -  that modern editors are using an App. which works by identifying  proper names and then inserts standardised patter on one side of the name and dates of birth and death on the other:

“playwrights such  as William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), for example, wrote history plays…” (page 80)

At least he is not English-speaking William Shakespeare, but this is still the language of an out-of-control App. as is evidenced by the double redundancies (playwrights/wrote ... plays;  such as/ for example). Authors sometimes need to take back control.




[1] The fun is now in my Nabokov’s Dream (2021)


Sunday 6 September 2020

Reclaim Her Name? George Eliot and Middlemarch


I had been meaning to re-read Middlemarch and promoted it to the top of the waiting list after reading that a well-known alcoholic drinks company, Baileys, had recently re-issued it - along with 24 other books. This is what the Baileys website currently says about its project:


Reclaim Her Name was created to mark the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, who we have proudly supported for the last 7 years …. The campaign was about championing female writers, something that the Women’s Prize for Fiction do every day.

(If you are unhappy with the grammar, I assure you I have copied carefully from the website; I can see Microsoft’s squiggle on my copying).

The twenty five books were all written by women but were published originally under male or gender-neutral names. Middlemarch was among the books selected and its new cover attributes authorship to “Mary Ann Evans”; it was originally published in 1871 under the name of the by-then very well-known and successful writer, “George Eliot”, whose first novel Adam Bede had appeared in 1859.

In 1854, a translation The Essence of Christianity (still the standard one) of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums gave title-page credit to “Marian Evans”, a name which Mary Ann Evans began to use when she arrived in London determined to become a writer; by 1854 she had become prominent as an editor and contributor at The Westminster Review. But current paperback editions of the Feuerbach give jacket credit to “George Eliot”, a name she only adopted later and specifically for her fiction.

It seems that Mary Ann Evans can’t win: “Marian Evans” has been taken away and replaced by “George Eliot”; “George Eliot” is now taken away and replaced by “Mary Ann Evans”. It’s tough being a woman; you can be confident that no one is going to mess with “George Orwell”.

I am sure the late but very strong-minded writer is mistreated both ways, but I take consolation from the fact that in Middlemarch she treats her fate in a light-hearted manner. If you turn to the Finale in the respectful Penguin edition which credits Middlemarch to George Eliot,  at pages 832-33 (yes, it’s a very long novel and in small print, too) you will find surprising attention given to questions of authorship.

Fred Vincy wins congratulations from the agricultural fraternity for his Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding but in Middlemarch “most persons there were inclined to believe that the merit of Fred’s authorship was due to his wife, since they had never expected Fred Vincy to write on turnips and mangel-wurzel” (832). She continues, “But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch… every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, ‘where the ancients were studied’ ….” (832).

She concludes, “In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book since it was always done by somebody else” (833).


I did read the novel cover to cover and enjoyed it despite its 800+ pages. There is a cast of characters of which at most one or two could be regarded as simple, black and white, souls who we can cheer for. The others have complex characters, merits and demerits, virtues and vices jostling or running in harness. Narrative tension is sustained through eighty six, mostly short, chapters. A few things grate (the over-used word "ardent", for example). Only in the final Book Eight - the novel was issued in serial form - titled "Sunset and Sunrise" was I a bit disappointed: the future lives of the main characters are packaged rather too neatly as tidy gifts to the loyal reader who has bought all the instalments. But, then, George Eliot did want to be a commercially successful novelist and was.That she was much more than that is the reason she has always been widely read ever since, by men and women alike, and surprisingly without much help from the manufacturing interest. 

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Publishing on Commission, Vanity Publishing, Self-Publishing


The early logical and mathematical work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein was made possible by Gottlob Frege (1848 - 1925) who taught at the University of Jena. In 1893 a Jena publisher brought out the first volume of his pioneering Basic Laws of Arithmetic and the second volume in 1903. Sales of the first volume had been so poor that Frege had to pay for publication of the second. But he did not self-publish and nor did he, in the ordinary sense, vanity publish since his publisher Hermann Pohle exercised discretion in what he published - and Pohle could point to the fact that on the title page Frege would be identified by his academic titles (as he was) and claim that as adequate justification for publishing a work which neither Pohle or anyone else understood.

The conventional way of characterising what happened is to say that Frege was published on commission. Under such arrangements, the author pays all the printing costs up-front; the publisher retains a commission on all the income from sales, but hands over the balance to an author who may or may not recover their original outlay. Both Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll were published on commission. Where copyright law exists, it is likely that the author published this way will retain copyright. In contrast, when a publisher bears all the costs, they sometimes agree to do it only if copyright passes to them. They are, after all, taking all the risk. Academic journals, for example, took their pick of submitted articles, paid the whole cost of publishing, took the copyright, and paid no royalties. Like all academics of the pre-internet period, I signed up for that many times. Now I observe with curiosity the fact that downloads of things I wrote are on sale from publishers who took everything and paid nothing - though it’s true, neither authors or publishers foresaw a world in which something called a download might exist let alone be sold.

Permutations on these arrangements are easily imaginable and modern printing and publishing technologies have expanded the range of possibilities, once ideologically polarised (by proper publishers - MRDA) into proper publishing and vanity publishing.

But it was never really that simple, as the practice of publishing on commission illustrates, and it still isn’t simple. Self-publishers are avoiding the older, rather quaint vanity publishing firms. Publishers can apply to the Arts Council for subsidies to publish books which are unlikely to make a profit, perhaps because of the very significant cost of getting a good translation made. Universities may subsidise publication of a faculty member’s book if something like the need for colour illustrations would otherwise push up the cover price to levels which would deter everyone except librarians. And so on.

The quality control which a publisher’s editors like to think they exercise always takes place in a context where the balance sheet has to be considered. A subsidy - doesn’t matter where it comes from - can alter the equation and make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Of course, there are always other factors in play. Modern corporate publishing has become so competitive, and margins so tight, that I very much doubt that editors can afford to devote more than a very few hours to reading, judging, and seeking to improve the books they commission. My guess is that nowadays a large proportion are nodded through on the basis of the author’s previous track record. They are published unread.

The Geography of My Reading - Eight Year Survey


I didn’t travel very much, even before lockdown,  and I’m a bit uncomfortable about that, especially since there is an international airport just up the road. But I like to think that I still travel extensively in my mind, in thinking and in the reflections which reading enables. But do I fool myself? Well, as always now there is CCTV evidence; the movements of my reading can be tracked. For the past eight years, I have posted reviews of books onto this blog - not all the books I read, maybe a third of them. So do those books provide evidence of extensive mental travelling or not?

As of this morning, there are about 280 posts on the blog of which some are essays or comment. I classify 240 posts as book reviews. Four are reviews of books read in another language (French - Duras, Houellebecq, Kundera, Geblesco) which hardly counts as serious surveillance of what they are up to on the other side of the leylandii.  Still, I can also point to twenty four books translated into English but it seems only one of those from a non-European language, Japanese: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which I enjoyed. Everything else - almost ninety percent - was written in English, though many by American writers and some by European academics writing in English. True, English is a world language - but so is Spanish.

Of the 240 books reviewed, 170 were written by men and 70 by women. Take out the extensive non-fiction and consider only the novels and autobiographies, then the balance changes to 50 men and 40 women. The only mitigation I can find is that the one review of Elena Ferrante deals with all four Neapolitan novels and a scurrilous review of Jane Austen tackles five with the agreeable result that if separately counted the ratio for novels would improve to 50:47 which ain’t bad as things go. You can always do things with statistics.

But overall first impressions do not strike me as the kind of wide-awake travelling I had fondly imagined. But perhaps I do myself an injustice? The reviews are never plot summaries; I only review a book if I find that I have something to say about it. Often enough, I draw on a back catalogue. I looked at my review of Murata and found that I pulled out Charlie Chaplin and Gregor Samsa to make sense of her first person narrator, Keiko. But that also shows that I didn’t have any Japanese points of comparison and I still don’t.

I don’t currently read books about Brexit or Donald Trump or the Royal Family. I have reduced my Bloomsbury biography footprint to zero The authors don’t need my encouragement..






Changing Places


Collectors enjoy great freedom. Drift into collecting teapots and it’s up to you whether to focus on a country or period, or instead go after little teapots short and stout. Readers are equally free to structure their reading; there is a field of possibilities limited only by our imaginations. If someone told me that this year they were reading books by authors surname Z that would be intelligible and intriguing. I would guess that a reader could learn a lot that way. Likewise, if someone said: This year, it’s writers in translation. From Chinese. And an obvious policy: Going halves: alternating books by women with books by men. Such principles could work well but not perfectly - you might end up reading all of Zola for want of anything else and a small voice in my head reminds me that there is a Marxist tradition which marks down Zola as a superficial naturalist, inferior to a robust realist like Balzac.

A powerful structuring principle would ensure that you read mostly good books and at the same time familiarised yourself with many real times and places, with varied ideas, and a wealth of imaginary worlds. What’s not to like?  But does any such principle exist? Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust a university reading list. Might I trust a friend?

Imagine a friend in another country who also enjoys reading. And suppose that at the end of the year you sent each other a list of all the books you had read that year. And suppose that you made a Resolution to read in the coming year the books which your friend had just read - exception made for those already familiar to you.

This is a more demanding challenge than the habit of taking up occasional reading suggestions or acting on reviewer recommendations. It’s always a big challenge to change places. If your friend reads in another language and you can’t read it, there’s immediately a problem with books not available in translation. Fine, that will reduce your commitment to something less daunting.

Paris is a couple of hours away from London but the reading world of a French friend in Paris is going to be very different from that of an English friend in London. It’s not a new intellectual situation; Voltaire pointed it out:

 A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon…

Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques were published in English in 1733 and in French the following year; the London edition a best-seller, the Paris edition suppressed. That typical outcome reversed in the twentieth century when Paris became the place to publish books banned in English-speaking countries.

Who knows what it might be like to change reading places now? Just for a year. Or a lockdown.

Readers Lurk in Every Writer's Mind

Readers lurk in every writer’s mind. Some are wished-for readers who will fully appreciate what the writer is about. Some are stern critics, editors of style but also protectors of morals. Some are judges who remind the writer that not all can have prizes. One is likely to be your Mum or Dad.

The list continues and it is a brave writer who can claim that they wrote exactly what they wanted to write without a care about who might read and what they might think.

When Charlotte Brontë  has Jane Eyre declare Reader, I married him!  I assume that she expected a Bravo! from everyone, a tear from some, and a blessing from the vicar. She did not expect her readers to be appalled. So even if I married him! is more assertive than He married me! it is not as if Miss Brontë expected to scandalise early (1847) Victorian readers of expensive triple-decker novels. Some may have had reservations, but they bought the book and read it. That’s the main thing.

Nowadays, the creative writing magazines that I find in W H Smith constantly prep their readers with information about what readers want and what propriety demands. It is as if the only kind of writing they can imagine is cynical writing under the overarching banner of Give ‘em what they want.

So they might tell you (I simplify a bit) that Asperger’s is trending. The would-be successful first-time novelist then turns to Wikipedia and discovers what Asperger’s is, googles around for a few personal experiences, and stumbles on an articulate mother whose child has Asperger’s. At this point, the novelist decides that it will not be too much of a disruption of the plot if the main character of their novel-in-progress now acquires a sister who in turn acquires a child with Asperger’s. The new sub-plot will surely strengthen sales of the intended novel. It probably won’t and the cynicism with which it is created may well be lisible, even to an average reader. 

Clearly, there are many variants on this simplified story. These little manoeuvres designed to ride on the coat-tails of current trends are unlikely on their own to produce a best-seller. In any case, even bestsellers don’t pay the mortgage for very long. The serious money is in books which can be turned into films for the big screen. The reader lurking in the writer’s mind then becomes a film director or, at least, a scout for one.