There are some wonderful rhymes in Cole Porter’s song ‘I get a kick out of you’: if-whiff-terrif, high-guy-sky with the first syllable of i-dea. And, even better:
When I’m out on a quiet spree
Fighting vainly the old ennui
And I suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face.
We wonder why ‘fighting vainly’ is subtly better than ‘vainly fighting’, we are pleasurably uncertain what ‘a quiet spree’ might look like, and ‘the old ennui’ impeccably captures a rather boastful world-weariness also known as the ‘mal du siècle’, whatever century you have in mind. But the rhyme of ‘ennui’ and ‘spree’ takes us to another place, where the words themselves seem to want to get out of their comically arranged marriage. Is this because one of them is manifestly foreign to English and the other seems vaguely native? Etymology doesn’t help us much here. Ennui is French but it is related to annoy, and spree may come from Old Norse, or it may actually be French, an elision of esprit. The OED merely murmurs about the word’s ‘obscure origin’. Still, whatever their derivation, the words do seem to belong to quite different realms of affect and activity, which themselves rest on an old and interesting – if very shaky – mythology. In spite of the Norman Conquest, and the proliferation of Latinate words in English, we’ve somehow remained Nordic in our linguistic hearts, and if Spree is also the name of a German river, so much the better. French is fancy and fashionable, but we aren’t going to fall for that. We have solid, stocky Saxon words to hand, verbal guarantees of a closeness to reality. Who needs ennui when we have old-fashioned boredom?
In a subtle piece for this paper (15 December 2005), Jenny Diski answered the question by looking into English uses of ‘je ne sais quoi’: ‘a public phrase for the mannered’, as she called it. The English language isn’t keen on the ineffable – in his book on translation David Bellos memorably says that ‘everything is effable’ – but it does recognise mystery when it has to, and it once allowed us, Diski says, ‘a neat phrase’ for ‘the mist in our minds’: ‘I know not what.’ The phrase ‘works fine in English’, Diski suggests, but has ‘a certain something extra, a je ne sais quoi if you will, if kept in French’. There’s a story to be told, she adds, about ‘how we found an expression for the inexpressible and finally skirted the difficulty of the unknown by wrapping it up in a single phrase so that we wouldn’t have to give it our full attention’. ‘Je ne sais quoi’ is not a translation of ‘I know not what’: it’s a shifting of responsibility. If we really knew what we don’t know, we’d say it in English. Cole Porter rhymes ‘je ne sais quoi’ with ‘tra-la-la’.
Diski’s thoughts are in part a response to an earlier work by Richard Scholar, The Je Ne Sais Quoi in Early Modern Europe, and she’s the first person he talks about on the acknowledgments page of his new book. ‘Her piece brilliantly demonstrated,’ he writes, ‘in a way I could not have imagined, that the je-ne-sais-quoi was a modern “keyword” of the kind that Raymond Williams … seemed to me to have left underinvestigated.’ The keyword, that is, ‘of conspicuously foreign derivation’. Williams himself, as Scholar notes, referred to the importance and difficulty of ‘tracing’ the life of words that ‘either developed key meanings in languages other than English, or went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of languages’, but he didn’t do much of this himself. An exception was the word ideology, offered as a ‘direct translation’ of idéologie, but this, Scholar says, is a ‘foreign-derived loanword’ rather than the entity he is interested in himself, which he calls a ‘residually foreign émigré’. That is, a word that has ‘turned English’ in at least two of the senses of the pun. Such a word has entered idiomatic English without shedding its foreignness, and has helped to make English different from what it was.
John Evelyn wrote in 1665 that we (the English) ‘have hardly any words that do so fully expresse the French … naifaetie, Ennüii, bizarre, concert, Chicaneries, Consumme, Emotion, Defer, effort, shocque, défaute’. His list also included a few words that have seemed less necessary to us, like clinquant, façonnier, entour – but we may also be surprised to find emotion and effort among other native absentees. An Englishwoman in Dryden’s play Marriage à la Mode tries, for reasons of fashion, to learn a handful of French words every day, including naive, foible, chagrin, grimace, penchant. The woman gets a little lost, and says to her French maid, who has supplied the words: ‘Hold, hold, how did they begin?’ The maid says, in a joke probably lost on her employer: ‘They began at sottises, and ended en ridicule.’ It was wit of this kind that made me think of Cole Porter.
Of course, weightier political thoughts would have been somewhere on the mind of an audience of 1673, aware as they were of the Stuarts’ closeness to France and Catholicism. The resistance went on for some time, and Scholar quotes a splendid passage from Johnson’s Dictionary: ‘Our language, for almost a century, has … been gradually departing from its original Teutonick character, and deviating towards a Gallick structure and phraseology, from which it ought to be our endeavour to recall it.’ This sort of thing, he said, ‘if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France’.
We’re still babbling quite a bit of the time: there are, apparently, around seven thousand French words or phrases currently in use in English. Williams was trying, as Scholar says, ‘to show his readers that the language they spoke was not a self-evident set of meanings … but a process of making and remaking meaning in which they could choose to play a fully conscious and active part’. This is Scholar’s goal too, but the words he concentrates on have a quite special life, and this is where his borrowing of the term créolisation becomes helpful. The word creole is itself an émigré, he suggests, long ago shifting its home from Spanish to French, and acquiring new meanings in the process. Scholar summarises an argument of Stuart Hall’s, reminding us that
Creoles were originally white Europeans, said to have acquired ‘native characteristics’ through long association with the colonial setting, and … the word was then also applied to black African slaves born in the island or territory. Only more recently … did the term Creole come to designate a person of mixed African and European blood in certain settings.
‘Édouard Glissant,’ Scholar says, ‘defined créolisation as the process whereby several cultures, or elements of those cultures, form unexpected hybrids,’ and the attraction of the term is its preservation of a certain inequality and instability even when naturalisation appears to have taken place. It staves off the too comfortable acceptance of difference that we find in a whole set of ‘wholly affirmative syncretic concepts that have dominated the study of postcolonial cultures’. We love the French, but only some of the time.
Scholar’s book opens with a discussion of two improbable émigrés, or rather two ordinary émigrés in improbable contexts. The first is ‘bon-hommy’, used by A.A. Milne’s Eeyore as what he calls ‘a French word meaning bonhommy’. The meaning of the word would be pretty remote from Eeyore’s style in any language but, as Scholar says, ‘the discontented grey English donkey’ is ‘using the Frenchness of the word to emphasise its distance from himself’. The second word is ‘entrepreneur’, a quiet enough stranger until George W. Bush told us the French didn’t have a word for it. ‘The anecdote … suggested that many, in the English-speaking world, turn to French much more than they would like to think they do.’
The book has two parts, ‘Mixings’ and ‘Migrations’. The first explores ‘the Restoration moment’, looks closely at words such as galanterie and phrases such as à la mode, and offers agile readings of Dryden’s play as well as George Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676). The second part consists of three essays on particular words: naïveté, ennui and caprice. ‘Naïveté in English,’ Scholar says, ‘betrays … the aspiration to partake in the cultural superiority that the English attribute to the French.’ I think this is true – but then it’s interesting that naive doesn’t behave in the same way at all. Scholar’s émigrés often manage to be posh and phoney at the same time, while still carrying a kind of precision it would be hard to find without them. He chooses entertainingly difficult examples and discusses them at length: Schiller’s essay ‘On Naive and Sentimental Poetry’ and Le Carré’s The Naive and Sentimental Lover, a pairing that shows how the Germans can welcome the same émigrés as we do but on quite different terms.
The chapter on ennui tracks its usage from Evelyn’s comments on English-language deficiencies to an 1809 novel by Maria Edgeworth, Ennui, or Memoirs of the Earl of Glenthorn, and then on to the name of a c.1914 painting by Walter Sickert, with interpretations of the word by Virginia Woolf and A.L. Hendriks. Scholar notes that Sickert chose his title as ‘an émigré word we cannot assume either of the painting’s subjects would necessarily know’. The two people not only look bored but appear as if they wouldn’t need another word, or perhaps any word at all. Scholar has good things to say about the metaphysical dimensions of ennui, especially in Baudelaire:
It is a secret of human existence that the poet and his reader share … a ‘dainty monster’ lurking among the menagerie of vices … Ennui is at once the ugliest of these vices in intent and the most casual in attitude, an esoteric figure ready to swallow the whole world in a single exhausted yawn.
Scholar suggests that ‘caprice carries with it the web of connotations – of fashionable poise, modern gallantry, access to literature and learning, and a cultural prestige born of political power – that surrounds with pain and possibility the Anglophone reception of all the émigrés explored in this book.’ For this reason the word ‘may be said to act as a figure for émigrés as a whole; for, that is, those words that come into the language from outside and turn it in new and unexpected directions’. By using capriccio as a synonym and writing about Richard Strauss’s opera of that name, Scholar manages to bring Italian into the picture and to return to German, and it’s clear that the pain and the possibility are very much part of our present non-European moment. He assures us that his ‘book was conceived long before’ our current conditions made themselves final, but also says that their antecedents ‘undoubtedly shaped its writing’.
They certainly shaped the following lament, a stern interpretation of the allegory that has governed the book, where words have historical lives and tell us stories we may not know how to hear:
While the English language needs and has always needed émigrés to achieve elegance and completeness of self-expression, the English as a people have never yet learned to celebrate this fact about their language. We might say that, unlike the Anglophone artists at the heart of this book, English culture has on the whole failed to come to terms with its part in a creolising process that started on either side of the English Channel and that continues to this day. It struggles in particular to appreciate the benefits of its mutual entanglement with French culture. It has never entirely shaken off the suspicion that this entanglement amounts to a humiliating foreign takeover. That suspicion is as old as the hills of England, and was certainly alive in the period of the Restoration, when the émigrés at the heart of this book first turned English.
We can share the sadness of these lines, and note the dangers of dwelling on the foreignness of the foreigner, but Scholar is under-representing the complexity and interest of his own findings. French émigrés live a variety of lives in English, and more often than not, as Diski suggests, help us to question or bury our notions of ‘elegance and completeness of self-expression’ rather than satisfy them. Usage in context creates new meanings all the time and, stylistically at least, Dr Johnson can be both right and wrong. There will always be occasions when we need to fight the old ennui. Vainly, of course.