Battle on the home front a war of words


    Pam Linn

    After replacing French with Freedom on Washington, D.C. menus, Air Force One patriotic chefs were urged to extend the purge to all French words. Buffet, cantaloupe, casserole, filet, quiche, romaine, sauted must go. Crepes are just thin pancakes, quiche is ham and egg pie, all things formerly sauted are now pan fried, casseroles are one-dish meals, and endive and romaine are simply salad greens.

    Obviously, French dressing, French vanilla ice cream and French pastry are just French toast. And every buffet inside The Beltway is now a diner. Cafe and restaurant are too, well, Old Europe.

    Meanwhile, White House speechwriters and Press Secretary Ari Fleischer are faced with a presidential edict: No more unpronounceable words with French roots. Fox TV News anchors and commentators are expected to follow suit. The if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-one-of-them tactic prevails. Dictionaries have been dusted off and appear on every desk. Network suits, who long ago demanded Anglicized pronunciation of envoy and enclave, have, it seems, been vindicated.

    Conversation among the press corps and in newsrooms may be going something like this: What’s an English word for sortie? Try flight or mission, maybe bombing run. No way, bomb is French. So are bombard, battalion, battery and barracks. Forget the B words, what did the fly boys hit? A convoy. Oh, no. How about a big long string of tanks and Humvees? Not neat but free of the dreaded F words. A caravan of refugees, no passports, in camouflaged vehicles, possibly partisans with the Iraqi resistance, were ambushed near a levee on the Tigris and captured. Vehicles, Iraqi and Tigris stay in, the rest are out.

    One editor got an unconfirmed report, actually a leak, that a platoon on reconnaissance found a cache of materiel, weapons of mass destruction. Wow. That would justify a lot, but we better sit on it. Besides we’d have to rewrite all but the W.O.M.D.

    Wait a minute. There was a film clip on CNN showing what may be a scene of a massacre. Total carnage. Coffins stacked like a morgue in a massive warehouse. The corpses could be partisans bayoneted for espionage. Some sat on that one too, and investigators found the victims appeared to be soldiers killed in the Gulf War. Whew. Saved by the dictionary again.

    Embedded journalists, deployed on maneuvers with combat units, and some criticized for their obvious esprit de corps and camaraderie, file stories live from the field, so traditional verbiage flies unchecked.

    They talk of engagement with a cadre of Saddam’s elite forces and show a road strewn with debris from a barrage of artillery fire; an Iraqi plane, its fuselage riddled by a fusillade; and the demolition of materiel and oil wells torched by saboteurs in defense of the despot’s regime. They say military morale is high but fatigue and malaise may be a factor before the campaign is finis. Would a massage help?

    Secretary of Defense (Fr.) Donald Rumsfeld still uses the more common words, at least the ones with both English and French roots, in his daily briefings. They’d be pretty bare without casualties, depot, detachment, engagement, national, paradigm, precision bombing, rally, revise, rifle, rocket, sabotage, salvage, siege and strategy. It’s so hard to describe war in plain old American.

    Of course, there could be one reason why our battlefield lingo is made up of French words. They’ve probably been with us since the American Revolution, which may have turned out differently if the French hadn’t helped us defeat the Brits.

    And maybe there’s a reason why all the words for diplomacy, including diplomacy itself, have French roots. Ambassador, attach, dtente, embassy, envoy, envelope, egalitarian, liaison, liberty, misalliance, rapprochement, rendezvous, retrenchment, sanction and phrases such as carte blanche and coup d’etat.

    Not too hard to figure that one out, I think.

    In all fairness, I should point out that France has a ministry of culture whose raison d’etre is keeping the French language pure, to free it of “Franglais,” the insidious creep of English words into everyday speech. Le weekend, le tennis, les gangsters, and jeans, sandwich, gadget, score, stress, smoking, parking, self-service, like that. This project predates by at least a decade the recent disagreement with America’s march to war. Let it also be said they are not making much progress. Pommes frittes are now French fries, just like we used to have here.