or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

De Trop

I was reading Slate.com's Monday entries yesterday; I'm usually a day behind. (Unlike Salon.com, which generally posts everything just after midnight, Slate's postings show up in dribs and drabs.) There was an amusing article about the expression "need to" and how it's replacing such imperatives as "have to" and "must" in English. Near the end came the following sentences:

Need to shines, as well, in passive-aggressive combat. Wife to husband: "Why do you need to play poker with the boys every Thursday?" By the time the husband comes up with the apt riposte—"I don't need to; I want to and I like to"—it's usually too late for anything but l'esprit d'escalier.

If you don't know the French origin of this phrase, you're lost, because a direct translation won't be of any help at all. You can fish around in the sentence for its meaning, but the literal word-for-word translation--"the spirit of the staircase"--is baffling; what it actually refers to is that irritating tendency for the perfect, witty response to occur to you only after it's much too late to actually say it--the story of my life. ("Esprit" literally translates as "spirit", but it can also mean "wit".) It's a great term, no doubt. It should be in wider circulation.

Then I was reading Fraywatch, which is a summary of readers' responses to Slate articles, and there appeared--not in a reader's letter but in the editorial comment--this sentence:

More to the point, badtequila asks why sexism is somehow more palatable or excusable than homophobia tout court.

This one had me a little baffled, though with a bit of research I could figure out, more or less, the meaning of the French phrase. It seems to translate variously--there isn't a precise translation--as "per se", "simply", "just", or "plain old". (French adjectives generally go after the nouns, and the usage of this phrase in English follows that pattern.) I wasn't altogether sure why anyone would use this expression when one of the English phrases or words would have done just as well, but to each his own, I suppose.

And then I read an amusing article about the sombre covers of Gourmet magazine in recent months, and there in the second paragraph was this sentence:

Gourmet has always been a little more soigné and literary than other food magazines, so I was willing to give the brooding September 2005 cover the benefit of the doubt.

And that was when I snapped. Is there an editor in the house? Because the presence of three italicized French terms (two of them fairly uncommon) in one day seems, how shall we say, un petit peu prétentieux.


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