Q: Is there a term for a word like toupee that looks and sounds as if it’s taken from a foreign language (in this case, French) but doesn’t actually exist in that language?
A: We don’t know of a technical term for such words, but many of them, if not most, are faux French, so why not call them that?
We’ve written about such words on the blog as well as in “An Oeuf Is an Oeuf,” the chapter about fractured French in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths.
One of the words we discuss in the book is toupee, which doesn’t exist in French, where a hairpiece is a moumoute or a postiche. However, toupee may have Gallic roots.
Etymologists believe it was probably inspired by toupet, French for a tuft of real hair over the forehead, like a person’s bangs or a horse’s forelock.
Perhaps the phoniest of phony French terms is nom de plume, which the British invented in the 19th century to replace the real French expression. We’ve written about this one on our blog as well as in Origins, which we’ll quote here:
“The real French expression for an assumed name is nom de guerre, which the British adopted in the late seventeenth century. But in the nineteenth century, British writers apparently thought the original French might be confusing. One can see why nom de guerre, literally ‘war name,’ could puzzle readers. The French initially used it for the fictitious name that a soldier often assumed on enlisting, but by the time the British started using the expression, it could mean any assumed name—in English as well as French.
“The faux-French nom de plume was introduced in English in the nineteenth century. An obscure Victorian novelist, Emerson Bennett, is responsible for the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (perhaps the only feather in his cap). In his 1850 novel Oliver Goldfinch, the title character is said to be ‘better known to our readers as a gifted poet, under the nom de plume of “Orion.” ’ Bennett could have used the word ‘pseudonym,’ which we had borrowed from the French around the same time nom de plume was invented. But perhaps he felt ‘pseudonym’ lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever his reasons, nom de plume was a hit with the literary crowd—such a hit that it inspired an English translation, ‘pen name,’ which made its debut in 1864 in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.
“The old French expression nom de guerre is still with us, though. It’s defined in English dictionaries as ‘pseudonym’ or ‘fictional name,’ but these days it seems to be used most often for the sobriquets of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view).”
Here are some other pseudo-French terms that we discuss in Origins of the Specious:
“Double entendre. Although the expression, adopted into English in the seventeenth century, was once French for double meaning, there’s no exact equivalent in modern French. Two near misses, double entente and double sens, don’t have the suggestiveness of the English version. How should one pronounce our illegitimate offspring? Illegitimately, of course. Dictionaries are all over the place on this, but I treat ‘double’ as an English word (DUB-ul) and ‘entendre’ as if it’s French (ahn-TAN-dr).
“Negligee. No, the French don’t call that frilly, come-hither nightie a négligée, though in the eighteenth century a négligé was indeed a simple, loose gown worn by a Frenchwoman at home. In France, the nightie is a peignoir or a chemise de nuit. The French verb négliger means to neglect, and a person who’s négligé is careless or sloppy or poorly dressed.
“Encore. The word we shout when we want Sam to play it again isn’t used that way in France, except by tourists. Although ‘again’ is one meaning of encore in French, a Parisian usually shouts ‘Bis!’ to call for a repeat performance. English speakers have been shouting ‘Encore!’ since at least the early 1700s, but nobody seems to know why. Perhaps we can blame the eighteenth-century vogue for all things French.
“Pièce de résistance. The French don’t use this for the main dish or the main part of something. In fact, they don’t use it at all. The closest thing to it in France is plat de résistance, meaning the main dish. But in the eighteenth century, when so many French expressions crossed the Channel, a pièce de résistance was a main dish or a dishy woman.
“Idiot savant. This invention would sound idiotic to a Frenchman, though the inventor may have been a French-born physician living in the United States, according to the OED. In ‘New Facts and Remarks Concerning Idiocy,’ an 1869 lecture to a New York medical association, Dr. Edouard Séguin used the term ‘idiot savant’ to describe someone with a ‘useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woful general impotence.’ The actual French phrase for the condition is savant autiste, similar to the current medical term for the condition in English, ‘autistic savant.’
“Résumé. A job hunter in France doesn’t polish up her résumé. She updates her curriculum vitae, or CV. In French, a résumé is a summing up, as in a plot summary. And that’s what it meant when the word entered English in the early nineteenth century. The term wasn’t used for a career summary until the mid-twentieth century, when this sense began appearing in the United States and Canada. Maybe it was easier to pronounce than ‘curriculum vitae.’
“Affaire d’amour. This would be meaningless in France, where an affaire is a business deal, not a romance. The French for ‘love affair’ is histoire d’amour. Where did our faux French come from? It’s a froufrou version of an old English expression, ‘love affair,’ which dates from Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare used the original in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (And by the way, it’s a myth that the term ‘love’ in tennis comes from l’oeuf, though an egg is more or less round like a zero. Mere folklore.)
“Risqué. Nope, risqué isn’t titillating or sexy in French. It’s merely ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous,’ which aptly describes the dubious practice of using these faux French expressions when you’re in France.”
We’ll end with a story from Origins of the Specious about the poet Coleridge, who used several noms de plume (“Cuddy” and “Gnome,” among others) as well as a nom de guerre.
When a young woman refused Coleridge’s hand, the rejected suitor dropped out of Cambridge and enlisted in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the assumed name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.” (He’d seen the name Comberbache over a door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London.)