Friday, 1 February 2013

What's in a word? A lot, that's what, be it in English or French

We are used to seeing new words and expressions crop up in English, and those with an image to protect or project - governments, businesses and the press are a few examples - can be very inventive indeed when it comes to dressing a wolf in sheep's clothing, or, come to think of it, dressing a sheep in wolf's clothing.

One well-known example  is 'collateral damage', a military term which tries - and fails of course - to sanitise and render anodyne the brutal reality of 'civilian casualties'. Another is the business world's 'reorganisation', or its alternative, 'restructuring', to describe the cruel act of throwing thousands of people out of a job and into unemployment queues. Those two examples are, of course, indicative of a desire to hide bad news, but others can have the opposite intention - that of exacerbating the truth.

This is a favourite press tactic which is often used by journalists who wish to render their articles more sensationalist or slanted (or both). That's why newspapers which offer partisan opinion articles on a given conflict use either 'terrorist' or 'resistant/rebel' to describe people who kill other people, depending which side of the fence they are on. Then there's 'genocide', or 'genocidal act'. This one takes cynical advantage of the fact that there is no single definition of it, and that is why it is slowly being watered down from its original connotation for most people, which is the deaths of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in an attempt to eradicate a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The result is that I have seen it used recently to describe the deaths of as few as 2 people, particularly when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East and on the African continent. 'War crimes' and 'crimes against humanity' have also become popular to describe the same phenomenon, but when few victims are involved, I would venture to say that 'unlawful killing of prisoners or civilians' is more accurate. After all, we can't realistically take every soldier/guerilla fighter who kills two people to the International Criminal Court - the international court which deals with these and similar crimes - to be tried, however awful their actions may be. 

Not that the Anglophone world is alone in deploying the fine art of inventing touchy-feely ways to describe negative images of course. The French are no novices at this game either, and just like Anglophones, they know how to sugar the pill. Better-known examples include 'zones sensibles' - 'sensitive zones/areas' - a would-be benign way of describing 'ghettos', which, in France, is a highly negative and crime-inferencing expression uniquely reserved for descriptions of similarly disadvantaged areas of cities not in France, but in other countries, and most notably America. Then there's my all-time favourite, 'Les Evénements' - 'The Events' - to describe what the rest of the world has always called 'the Algerian War'. That said, the latter term is finally becoming acceptable here, but hey, a war described as an 'event'? The tradition continues today, and that's why Hollande and his government have literally banned the use of 'austerity measures' to describe what in reality are spending cuts, higher taxes and other belt-tightening fiscal measures. The buzzwords now are 'fair redistribution', 'economic rationalisation', 'economic mesures' and 'a national effort'.

I mention all this because coincidence has it that I have read a few news stories this week in the French press which all discuss the the meanings and implications of terms used to describe phenomenon or events. But although I imagine that most people would agree that the examples I cited above are no more than overtly biased attempts to give unpalatable hard facts a soft landing, those I have found this week are more likely to provoke diverse opinions.

The first one concerns the efforts of French Socialist députée Sandrine Mazetier, who would like to see the French term 'école maternelle' replaced by an alternative because, she argues, the word 'maternal' intrinsically implies that kindergardens, pre-schools and nursery schools, (according to local use in different Anglophone countries) are uniquely the affair of mothers and the female sex and, as such, is sexist. She suggests alternatives such as 'small child schools' or 'first/primary schools', which she says are more gender-inclusive. Does she have a point? Or, as her critics are asking, "doesn't the government have anything better to do in times of a financial crisis than to play around with semantics?" Hmmm.....

Next up are a couple of articles which address expressions which are being hotly contested during the ongoing debate on gay marriage, and the first one is very interesting. Those who oppose gay marriage say that the word 'marriage' can only be applied to a marriage between a man and a woman, and that another term should be found to define same-sex unions. Yet at the same time proponents of 'gay marriage' also disagree with that term on the grounds that it differenciates between 'marriage' and 'gay marriage', so they think that the terms 'gay' or 'homosexual' marriage should be banned, and that 'marriage' alone is more in line with the idea of equal rights and considerations. Is one side or the other being too pernickety for pernickety's sake? If so, which one? What new term should be used instead?

Another bone of contention in the gay marriage debate is that of the terminology 'parent 1 and parent 2'. Opponents say that these terms reduce people to numbers and "why not have 'parents 3 and 4' too while we're about it, to include the lover and the bigamist's partner?" Notwithstanding, the French national rail company SNCF has apparently decided that the gay marriage bill will be voted into law, so it has already taken steps to replace the terms 'mother' and 'father' in the documents it asks employees to fill in which include marital and personal status with 'parent 1' and 'parent 2'. The government denies that either term will be used once the law comes into force and says that the two categories of  'husband' and 'wife' will be replaced by the more inclusive 'husband and wife', and that 'mother' and 'father' will become the equally egalitarian 'parents'. Phew! I'm getting dizzy with all these alternatives! Is all this a storm in a terminological PC teacup or does the future of humanity depend upon making the right choice?

Lastly - and perhaps most importantly - François Hollande's election promise to eliminate the word 'race' from Article 1 of the French Constitution is to be put to parliament before this summer. But this is not an example of changing nomenclature to hide realities, on the contrary. It's about purely and simply removing a term, and the phenomenon it defines, from use with a strikethrough stroke of a pen and without replacing it. And it is likely to cause a real ruckus because the consequences of eliminating the word 'race' from the Constitution could have far-reaching implications for freedom of information in France. Paragraph 1 of the French Constitution states that;

'France is an indivisible, laïque [i.e. secular], democratic and social Republic. It guarantees equality before the law of all citizens without distinctions of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs. Its [organisational structure] is decentralised.'

Hollande explained his reasoning at the time by saying that "there is no place in the Republic for [the notion of] race."

Unlike almost every other modern democracy, France has always been notoriously loath to publish official statistics on racial discrimination (and indeed societal statistics in general) because it fears that doing so would be tantamount to officially acknowledging the widespread existence in France of racial discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, political representation, the jail population, crime statistics and the holding of high office for all to see. And it has systematically used Article 1 to justify this refusal.

Removing the word 'race' from Article 1 would thus theoretically remove any obstacle to the compiling of statistics relative to racial discrimination. But is that Hollande's objective? Or is he merely trying to reinforce France's eternal and cynical refrain that 'there is no racial discrimination in France because we are French first and foremost and our origins are not taken into account'? This is not an easy call....

Anyway, those are my 'what's in a wordical' musings of the day and any opinions you may have on them would be welcome.


  1. I am not surprised that so much talk is given to semantic in France, they always want to be so precise. I can’t comment though as I have not lived in France for so long. I can only give you examples on the way it is here, in the US. Here they don’t like to use racial terms for colors but they will use “African American” instead of black or brown. I’ll give you two examples: I knew an American guy who went to Morocco and married a woman there. They lived in Morocco several years and had a son. They came back to Atlanta – the son had 2 passports – Marocain (African) and US. The only boys club in his neighborhood in Atlanta was an African American boy club. Since he was both African and American he went – they refused to accept him because he was not black. Another one- a bank in Atlanta was giving special loans to African American businesses, they said. I had an Armenian friend from Egypt, with an Egyptian passport (African) who had been naturalized American – so an African American. When she applied for the loan to start a computer business, the bank refused because she was not black. I don’t think they say Afro-French in France since the Maghrebins are Africans but not black?

    1. Hi Vagabonde, and what's in a word indeed! It seems to me that there's a misunderstanding in the nomenclature used over there for 'Africa', and there's no mention of NORTH Afica, which is a recognised part of the African continent which comprises Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. Within that, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and (depending) Mauritania constitute the Maghreb. That's why the French call Magrebhi people either magrébin(e)s or people from Afrique du Nord. South of that is the Sahara, then the Sub-Sahara, and then there's what is often called Black Africa, including East and West Africa. At least that's how I understand it.

      So no wonder your friends have experienced problems!

      (I'll be back later to respond to your other comments (busy little bee you are lol!) because I'm going out now to see what's happening at Lyon's second anti-gay marriage demo. Maybe Frigid Barjot will be there and I'll get some pix.

      Seeyer later.

  2. Wait, I have another example. I worked for years with the Algerian Air Force here in Georgia. So I was taking some Algerian trainees here in Atlanta to get their driver’s licenses. On the paperwork you have to say what “race” you are – "Caucasian" (white) black, Asian, Hispanic, other, etc. So the guys asked me and I said “Caucasian” (white.) The employee looked at the paperwork and said “they are from North Africa?” I said yes. She added “so they are Africans” so I said yes. She said “you have to write black under race.” I said that they were not black, she insisted that if they were from Africa they had to be black. I won’t tell you what a problem I had with the trainees – I finally had to get a manager, etc, etc.

    1. Those employees should learn some geography! Worse, the fact that American documents deem all people from Africa to be black shows just how ignorant American authorites are when it comes to defining which races are situated where. The people of North Africa are not black by any stretch of the imagination. Their skin colour is much more akin to that of the vast majority of people from the Mideast, and since when were people from the Mideast 'black'? Sheeshh.. du grand n'importe quoi! :)

  3. OK, my last example: another word, as you said is “genocide.” An Armenian doctor cured Senator Bob Dole (who ran unsuccessfully against Bill Clinton) from WW2 injuries. So Bob Dole worked with President Bush (senior) to have the Armenian Genocide recognized by the US - since so many other countries have recognized that the more than 1 million Armenians who died was a result of a genocide. The Resolution looked pretty good at the time to pass, but then the Israel Lobby spent $5 million to fight it, because they did not like the word genocide or holocaust for another people and also they were buying Turkey’s natural gas, so it did not pass. And as you know, Turkish writers may get put in jail if they use the word (although I read that a book written by the grandson of the sultan involved in the massacres, a book in Turkish, is saying it was indeed a genocide.) Another example – I had a friend who worked in media and told me that he was at a press conference where they were told, during the war in Kosovo that whatever happened, if Christians killed Muslims they could not be called “Christian terrorists” in the American media because “terrorists” were known to only be Muslim, never Christian. So the term used was “ethnic.” The study of “words” is interesting.

    1. Thanks for that info about the Jewish lobby's point of view Vagabonde. That said, even if Israel had agreed to recognise the Armenian Genocide America wouldn't have adopted that policy quite simply because Turkey is a crucial if turbulent ally of America in the Middle East.

      Pragmatism and realpolitiks always prevail over ethics, morality and the truth. C'est degeulasse, certes, mais c'est ainsi.....