Michael Williams: Readers' editor

As they say at Fawlty Towers, 'Pretentious? Moi?'
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The Independent Online

Oh dear, we have been named and shamed this week in a new edition of a book about words which takes us and our sister paper to task over importing inflated-sounding foreign phrases into our columns. I cannot imagine how the following got passed our editors, but it did: "Janet Street-Porter recently declared to a nation on the edge of its seat that her policy on men is that of a hungry diner approaching a buffet [...] this is only one of a number of culinary metaphors offered in the continuously evolving [...] Street-Porter 'Weltanschauung'." Now the polymathic Ms Street-Porter may know what this means, but I venture it would have many of you running for the German dictionary. (It means "view of the world". Go on – close your eyes and now try to spell it.)

Also condemned as "pretentious" in 'Faux Pas?', by Philip Gooden, is this offering from the 'IoS': "'Grandes horizontales' throughout history have been amongst the most celebrated of 'saloniers'." In this double dose of what my old Scouse news editor would have called "smart ass" writing, it is clear what the author is getting at. But such prose does not sit well in a newspaper – or anywhere else for that matter.

Generally our style police operate a zero-tolerance policy – taking George Orwell's view of what he calls "pretentious diction" in his essay 'Politics and the English language'. Foreign words and expressions, Orwell reckons, are used in an attempt to create an "air of culture and elegance". But, he says: "Except for useful abbreviations (ie, eg) there is no real need for the hundreds of foreign phrases now in English." Orwell was writing in 1946 and there are thousands more such phrases now. 'IoS' style is to anglicise them. Why say 'entre nous' when you can say between us or 'ménage' when you mean household? Far from being smart, foreign phrases like 'numero uno' or 'vive la différence' or 'pas devant les enfants' sound dated and gauche – like something from the script of 'Fawlty Towers'.

But as Mr Gooden points out, language does not stand still and the process of importing words goes on. Many have their uses. "There must be a moment, very hard to pinpoint, when a new expression is feeling its way. Eventually, if it is useful, it will be permitted to stay." One such is 'Schadenfreude' ("pleasure in other people's misfortune") which has raced up the popularity charts in the past decade. Once an obscure term, I can find 292 mentions on 'The Independent' website alone. Others stick around because they pick up emotive associations in English. Paparazzo is actually the surname of a freelance photographer in the film 'La Dolce Vita', but paparazzi will survive above all because of its associations with the death of Princess Diana.

'Faux Pas?: A no-nonsense guide to foreign words and phrases in everyday language' by Philip Gooden, A & C Black Publishers, £7.99

Corrections and clarifications

In our lead story last week, we described Dr Richard Taylor, MP for Wyre Forest, as a GP. He is a retired consultant. The photographer I referred to in this column as having doctored pictures from the Lebanon, was working for Reuters, not Associated Press.

Email readerseditor@independent.co.uk

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