The Grammarphobia Blog

A homage or an affectation?

Q: I enjoyed your recent discussion on WNYC about the English “homage” vs. the French hommage. I detect a subtle difference between the two, which may account for differences in pronouncing the English word. I think “homage” is more direct, hommage more implied. If a film director gives a talk about Hitchcock’s contributions to cinema, the talk is an homage to Hitchcock; if he includes himself in the background of a shot in a film, the shot is an hommage to Hitchcock.

A: I understand your point but I’m not sure you’re right. Aside from funeral eulogies and such, the English “homage” is indeed used in the artistic sense to mean what you suggest the French hommage means: the use of stylistic elements to recall the work of an earlier master.

People commonly use “homage” in this way. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the word in this sense as “something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another.”

You imply that the French hommage gets this notion across more subtly and delicately than “homage.” But I wonder whether this isn’t just a Francophile bias.

As far as I can tell, it’s only in recent years that English speakers and writers began using hommage in place of “homage.”

I have a hunch that this began with film criticism, since that’s where I first noticed it. But I can’t see that there is any real difference, and I suspect that the French usage is an affectation. (Perhaps it was influenced by the practice of calling directors auteurs.)

The point I was trying to make on the air is roughly this. “Homage” has been part of the English language for around 800 years and should be given one of the two standard English pronunciations: HOM-idj or OM-idj.

It can be “a homage” or “an homage,” depending on whether the “h” is sounded. Either way, it’s stressed on the first syllable. There’s no reason to use the French pronunciation (oh-MAHZH), which is stressed on the second syllable.

On the other hand, if one really does intend to use the French word hommage, for whatever reason, then it should be given the French spelling and italicized: an hommage or un hommage or l’hommage.

I’ve written about “homage” before on the blog, in case you’re interested.

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