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Deconstructing anglicisation and anglicisms (II) – The linguistic sinks

Last Updated: 1 Nov 2021

Deconstructing anglicisation and anglicisms (II) – The linguistic sinks1

Among the 3.8 million viewers who watched the debate between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Éric Zemmour on the French channel BFMTV on 24 September, some may have noticed, to their surprise, that the expression "fact-checking" came up about fifteen times in the mouths of the journalists and the debaters, who were surprised, even embarrassed, not to find a substitute for it in the contest between them.

This episode is very characteristic of the present situation.

The two protagonists being known and proclaimed sovereignists, one cannot suspect them of pro-American complacency. But journalistic conformism and the natural pressure of the debate explain this unexpected concession.

We say "journalistic conformism" and "concession".

It would be insulting to the two journalists Aurélie Casse and Maxime Switek not to be well-informed about the numerous fact-checking columns that have appeared in the press under other names revealing a beautiful verbal inventiveness.

The newspaper Le Monde has set up the Decodex, a tool to help you check the information circulating on the Internet and to spot the rumours, exaggerations or distortions. The people who work on Decodex are the decoders, and the column always starts with the title  « Decryption »

On France 24, the decoders are called The Observers while AFP lapses into sobriety with AFP Factuel.

In Le Figaro, the column is called La vérification and the newspaper explains: "In the flow of news, half-truths, real and false pretenses, lies, big and small, slip in. To sort out the real from the fake, find in this dossier all our verifications".

On France Info, « Le vrai du faux » is a news and fact-checking programme (as the channel puts it) that sifts through the small and large approximations circulating on websites and social networks.

This does not prevent the channel from continuing with "TRUE OR « FAKE »...".

In Libération they explain to us "Why CheckNews (that's the name of the column no longer does fact-checking with Facebook",whereas 20 Minutes they are content with Fake Off .

What can we learn from this first observation?

Even though the language is not at pains to use simple words to designate a simple action which consists in verifying the statements made by such and such a person in such and such a circumstance, can the reference to the American word in a programme that we know will be listened to and seen by a large audience be seriously interpreted as a mark of political allegiance to the dominant power, the United States. Or rather, according to the expression used by Bernard Cerquiglini, a sort of (probably unconscious) tribute to the culture which is considered to be dominant and which has in this case invented this new practice in the media, basic by the way, consisting in controlling the information which is manipulated and spread.

One might wonder about the meaning of this tribute, which is somewhat reminiscent of the tribute a vassal pays to his suzerain, and about the concept of cultural control coined in the 1960s by the economist, historian and philosopher François Perroux2.

Linguistic wells

Clearly, in the world of the media, as in other domains, there are behavioural norms which are totally dependent on a cultural hold of which we have lost awareness, which is the nature of a cultural hold. We suggest to designate these manifestations specific to various societal domains as "linguistic sinks " by analogy with thermal sinks in the field of building, more familiarly called "heat sinks ".

The idea does not come out of the blue. In his fine book, Nos ancêtres les Arabes, ce que notre langue leur doit, Jean Pruvost3 devotes a chapter to the paths of Arabic words. He sees six of them: two religious paths, the Crusades and the expansion of the Arab world from the Hegira onwards, the conquest of Spain and the intellectual influence of the Cordoba library, the development of trade between East and West via the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the colonisation and decolonisation of the Maghreb, and eventually the suburban housing estates in France and rap, a musical and poetic art of great importance in the French artistic landscape.

Thousands of these anglicisms are used in relatively small sectors of society, and a few hundred end up penetrating the everyday language and appearing in the dictionaries after many years.

We are quite aware that if an average Frenchman used the term fact-checking at an informal get together or an ordinary business meeting he would pass for a pretentious snob (a nice Anglicism that has long been accepted although it is a bit outdated, with colourful modern competitors like 'hype' or 'geek') or even a snobinard (a well Frenchified derivative).

This probably explains why fact checking is not yet in any current dictionary, but has been taken into account by FranceTerme (JO of 8 April 2017), in the "communication" domain, under the equivalent "Verification of facts" and with the definition "Verification, most often by journalists, of the accuracy of publicly stated facts, particularly in the media", a concept that is, all in all, very banal, and which makes one wonder why there is any need to resort to English to talk about it.

Especially since this professional practice of fact-checking is undeniably useful, as it is a kind of ABC of the journalistic activity and is similar to what is called "investigative journalism" on a smaller level. If this term exists in French, it is because it covers a form of specialisation of tasks, but it does not designate an innovation in terms of fact checking.

Thus, the French journalist Fabrice Arfi explains:

"When you go to look for information, you check it, you cross-check it, you recontextualise it, you prioritise it, you historicise it if necessary, you confront it with the people concerned, you publish it, (...) you do the work of a journalist2.

What is it, then, in Voltaire's country which drives people to use an American term to designate a practice with distant origins, if not to think of oneself as belonging to a certain professional elite, in which, as far as the English language of the Americas is concerned, there is a kind of presumption of legitimacy to which the journalist submits.

You said borrowing!

It is important, even if it is a truism, to say that not all anglicisms as well as linguistic borrowings are to be rejected. On the contrary, when they are a source of enrichment, one should hasten to adopt them, even if it means adapting them to better assimilate them.

Ferdinand Brunot (author of a monumental history of the French language published at the beginning of the last century and continued by Charles Bruneau) distinguished between the necessary borrowing and the luxury borrowing. The necessary borrowing is a borrowing that enriches the language. the luxury borrowing does not have this quality, but in any case it has a positive connotation because the luxury borrowing 

always starts from the language that receives it, i.e. the speakers go looking for it, and in the end it is always one more enrichment. Moreover, usage eventually sorts out and discards unnecessary borrowings.

There is a third category of borrowing, unfortunately forgotten, which the conditions of globalisation today place in the front line, and which corresponds to what we suggest to call the borrowings of domination, i.e. borrowings which establish themselves or are imposed from outside.

It is the conditions of this penetration that lead us to speak of "linguistic sinks", the mechanisms of which we must try to understand, after having appreciated its consequences, which can be positive or negative, for the individual or for the community.

We believe that these mechanisms are not sufficiently studied, when they should instead be the subject of precise research. The interest of this approach is to circumscribe the phenomena to their areas of production and diffusion and to show that the mechanisms can be different depending on the environment corresponding to the linguistic sink. This is the approach we have taken with the New Dictionary of Anglicisms and Neologisms project carried out by the OEP5.

It is clear that we are moving away from any linguistic characterisation of « borrowing » to focus on the social dynamics, the birth of anglicisms, and their effects, which may be elimination or coexistence, in order to consider influencing their course.

The scientific field, which we have mentioned in previous editorials, is the first linguistic sink to be looked at.

Cluster and scientific discourse

The word cluster has emerged in relation to the pandemic because most scientific papers are now written in English, including by French-speaking scientists. Although the word cluster has nothing scientific about it and comes from everyday English ("swarm of bees", "block of houses", "banana bunch", "star cluster", etc.), it is used in technical and scientific language in a multitude of contexts. Whereas the expression 'foyer of infection' or 'foyer of contamination' was already in use among researchers and health professionals in France, the term 'cluster' will quickly impose itself in the media, after a short transitional phase during which the French and American terms will cohabit, just long enough for the French finally to learn the latter.

It is surprising to note that the same process had taken place in the 2000s. We were coming out of thirty years of ultra-liberalism where any territorial State intervention to promote local development was suspect. It was then that the concept of development cluster, under the pen of Michaël Porter6 , an American professor and researcher at the prestigious Harvard University, could be seen as an innovation and attracted the attention of European institutions and many governments, in particular the French government. Except that Michael Porter had merely reinvented or updated the growth and development poles theorised thirty years earlier by François Perroux, a student and heir to the famous Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. However, for an American professor, it was probably better to be linked to classical economics and in particular to the theory of comparative advantages put forward by David Ricardo in 1817 in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, rather than be in the tradition where we find one of the great inspirers of the economic reconstruction of France and of the French-style planning that accompanied the Trente Glorieuses. In any case, the term cluster has become established throughout Europe, including in France, as the generational leap has led to a kind of amnesia, a break in memory in the economic sciences and in the terminology of the European Commission. However, when it came to incorporating the concept into the French legislation, we saw the reappearance of the concept of pôle de compétitivité in the 2005 finance law, which was simply an update of François Perroux's theories. The amnesia had stopped, at least in part.


To stay in the scientific field, a similar fate seems to have accompanied the term tracking.

The writings behind the French application stopcovid, now known to all, are almost all written in English by French people. However, when the press started to talk about it, the application was rather referred to as a digital tracking application. We also noted in one of the few scientific articles in French related to the subject the term "suivi (des cas contact)" , which is not at all difficult to understand and is characterised by sobriety. But very quickly, it was the American term tracking which was imposed by the minister, as well as by senior civil servants and finally by the media, without the latter needing to make the French term coexist alongside its American counterpart, since the latter is so close to its source (tracier in old French "to follow on the trail", from the Latin trahere). There is nothing to say that, with time, tracking will not eliminate itself, with traçage or suivi regaining their legitimate rights.

In any case, these two examples clearly show that, for words which have fallen into common usage, the science-media pairing operates, with the media being at the heart of most of the issues when they do not act exclusively.

Lockdown ou confinement

This is the case, for example, of the adoption by our German and Italian friends of the term lockdown, whereas the French and Spanish more naturally adopted the much older and more deeply rooted words confinement and confinamiento.

The Accademia della Crusca7 has invested a great deal of time and effort in this issue and has traced the development of lockdown, American and not English, as English already has the word confinement in exactly the same sense as in French.

Lock associated with down appeared in the United States in the 19th century to designate a particular piece of wood used in the construction of rafts. In the 1970s (first attestation in 1971), still in the United States, to lockdown took on another semantic value specific to the prison world: "To confine all of the prisoners of (a prison, cell block, etc.) to cells for an extended period of time, usually as a security measure following a disturbance; to confine (a prisoner) to a cell in this way.

If the term sometimes appears in the Italian press in the following decades, it is always in relation to an event taking place in the United States.

Around 1980, the meaning of the verb became more general to refer to a procedure used to ensure security in any situation or environment: "To contain, confine, shut off, or otherwise restrict access to, usually for security purposes". Then (1984), as a noun it takes on the meaning of "A state of isolation, containment, or restricted access, usually instituted as a security measure; the imposition of this state. It will be applied to computer science ("the restriction of access to data or systems") and to finance.

In this meaning related to security issues, the verb and the noun arrived in Italy "through the press". The first attestation, dating back to 2001, appears in an article in the "Repubblica" in which there is a description of New York in case of a hypothetical attack after the September 11 attacks:

"Giuliani has a secret plan, it is revealed on the front page of the New York Post on Sunday: in case of an attack in New York or any other American city, the "Big Apple" will be isolated from the rest of the world for security reasons. "Lockdown" is the headline: bridges and tunnels blocked, airports shut down, schools closed, offices deserted, police cordons around federal buildings and the Federal Bank of New York, where the largest amount of gold in the world is kept, mobilisation of firefighters, police and hospitals, which, since September 11, do not seem to have a moment's peace. (Arturo Zampaglione, Giuliani's secret plan against terror in New York, "la Repubblica", 8/10/2001)."

In the following years the quotes are rare, always referring to an event that takes place in North America (attempted attack on the White House in 2013, in 2014, another attempt on the White House and then an attack on the Parliament in Ottawa, in 2015 frequent shootings that took place in American colleges), the term lock down becomes systematic, it is no longer always in quotes but remains accompanied by an explanation.

But it was with the attack of November 13th in Paris that the word made its entry into Europe. The attackers were sought in Belgium, in Brussels. On this occasion, the Belgian police, in order to thank the journalists who suspended the dissemination of information so as not to help the terrorists, used the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown: now the word is not only American.

The word sees its use intensified in the following years, very often in the United States, but also in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, and in Germany, for terrorist threats, in London in June 2017, where a terrorist drives straight at the crowd in front of the Parliament, etc. The lockdown procedure is therefore applied in the case of events that are in some way linked to a war context, to terrorist attacks.

Throughout 2019, the lockdown procedure is activated in the case of events linked to terrorism or simply violent events. Thus, in the Italian press there are reports of the alarm still present in an American school in April, a massacre in a Texas supermarket and a shooting in Philadelphia in August; in the same month, in London, the Tate Modern Gallery was isolated because a six-year-old child had been thrown over a terrace, and in India, the whole of Kashmir was sealed off . In December, shots were fired at Pearl Harbor, the Pensacola Naval Air Station and Jersey City.

In January2020, there is a sudden change of scene. There is only one story: the isolation and closure of Wuhan's operations in China's Hubei province. As the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic spread, the English-language press used the formula it now had to indicate the series of measures taken to contain it.

Then in March Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced measures throughout Italy to curb the coronavirus epidemic, which the press translated as a lockdown.

In the Italian press, there was an explosion of the use of the term lock down. In March alone, no less than 167 appearances were recorded in the "Repubblica", 99 in the "Stampa" and 20 in the "Corriere". In April, the number of occurrences in the "Repubblica" reached 871 (21 of which were in disjunctive writing), in the "Stampa" 520, whereas in the "Corriere" the number of occurrences was 68; on 20 May, in the "Repubblica" there had already been 1,415 occurrences, in the "Stampa" 895, in the "Corriere" 145.

However, the use of lockdown is not exclusive and the term competed with other expressions which were just as relevant and made its meaning clear, such as chiusura totale, chiusura de attività, serrata, blindura, blocco, contenimento, isolamento, confinamento, covering various nuances, confinamento being, according to the Accademia della Crusca, the term that best covered the meaning of lockdown, which in a few weeks had become the keystone of a whole semantic edifice.

One may wonder about the circumstances that led France and Spain to take a completely different direction with this term and to adopt without hesitation the very Latin term of confinement. But it seems to us that if the Italian press had not summarised Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's announcement on 12 March 2020 as a lockdown, speaking only of a "protected zone" and a "discipline regime", aligning itself with the American channel CNN, which had preceded it by a few hours with the headline "Italy in lockdown", it is possible to think that what followed might have been different.

These few examples are far from covering the whole subject and a lot of research would be necessary for a fine analysis of the linguistic sinks. But each one is worthy of a specific sociological analysis, especially since many anglicisms, before eventually becoming mass phenomena, as we have just seen, are often first and foremost niche phenomena. They initially concern a marginal activity in which a specific vocabulary is forged in multilingual or not project communities until the activity ceases to be marginal. This is why terminology monitoring is necessary at a level of fine granularity, so that experts in their field have the terminologist's reflex, like this director of IBM France who encouraged the creation of the term ordinateur at a time when the microcomputer (micro-ordinateur) did not yet exist.

The Labour World? Is it resisting or not?

If we look at the world of work, the pandemic has led to the rapid development of a professional practice that was once marginal, namely télétravail. Today, no one would think of trying to propagate the English word telecommuting. However, the world of work is now invaded by anglicisms that their French-speaking counterparts have difficulty in imposing: coworking (cotravail), open space (paysager), desk sharing (bureau partagé) , free seating (siège libre), free floating (flotte libre), corner (stand, boutique, coin), concept store (boutique-concept), burn-out (épuisement au travail), bore-out (ennui au travail), food truck(bistrot ou « resto » ambulant, fast food (restauration rapide), business developer (responsable du développement), drive (achat au volant), customiser (personnaliser), etc.

Digital on the front line

The field of animation and video games does not fail to surprise, as France is at the top of the world in this field, and it is a field which concerns large numbers of people of all ages, not just young people. Nevertheless, there are many anglicisms, but also perfectly acceptable equivalents: casual game (jeu grand public) ; casual gamer (joueur occasionnel) ; casual gaming (pratique occasionnelle ; first person shooter-FPS (jeu de tir en vue subjective-JTS) ; game level (niveau de jeu) ; game level designer ou level designer (concepteur de niveaux de jeu ; hardcore gamer (hyperjoueur) ; hardcore gaming (pratique intensive) ; etc.8

We need to understand. We are no long.er in Etiemble's time. We can still castigate American imperialism, which is still very active, but after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has lost its lustre. As for the consumer society it is no longer so high and mighty.If we compare the production of carbon dioxin per capita, the United States is exceeded only by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and does almost twice as much as Germany, four times as much as France, ten times as much as China, which is being pointed at, and thirty times as much as India. The least we can say is that the American way of life is not the future of the world.

A lesser known criterion is the number of incarcerations in prisons. In the United States it is 639 per 100,000 inhabitants (one in three black persons will visit a prison in their lifetime), slightly outnumbered by Cuba it seems with 794, but far ahead of Russia (359). Canada, with 104, is on a par with European countries (France: 93, Germany: 69, Spain: 122).

However, the attractiveness of the United States remains considerable, if not intact, thanks in large part to Gafam and the dream of space tourism. Nothing very exciting, therefore. This attractiveness can therefore be seen as a survival of a time which is passing, the mark of an inertia of behaviour and competence which is maintained by other dynamics which can play out for decades.

It does not matter that scientists have a language to communicate with each other, as long as they do not annihilate work and creativity in other languages and do not project this behavioural norm onto society, which they mostly do. This is a form of intermingling that will be found in other important fraternities such as the media, which are pushing in the same direction and which play a pivotal role in Anglicisation. The unnecessary use of the term "fact checking" is a good example. In the same way, dealing with covid 19 in the media with the vocabulary of the 9/11 attacks is typically seeing the world through the prism of the United States. But such an attitude can be changed overnight.One just has to be determined to change things.

Christian Tremblay

1Around the project of a new dictionary of anglicisms (https://nda.observatoireplurilinguisme.eu) developed in cooperation with our Italian partner https://aaa.italofonia.info/ pending an extension of the project with a German and a Spanish partner.

2« Indépendance » de la nation, F. Perroux, Aubier-Montaigne, 1969

3Nos ancêtres les Arabes, ce que notre langue leur doit, Jean Pruvost, 2017, Jean-Claude Lattès, 318 p.

4 Fabrice Arfi, « Le journalisme d'investigation existe-t-il encore en France ? » [archive], conférence prononcée le 20 mai 2014 à l'École Militaire à l'invitation de l'ANAJ-IHEDN, à partir de 2 min 40 s.

5 https://nda.observatoireplurilinguisme.eu

6 Clusters and the New Economics of Competition, Harvard Business Review, nov-dec. 1998, https://hbr.org/1998/11/clusters-and-the-new-economics-of-competition

7 https://id.accademiadellacrusca.org/articoli/litaliano--uscito-dal-lockdown/473

8 Liste extraite de https://www.developpez.com/actu/129316/Jeux-video-une-nouvelle-liste-d-anglicismes-que-vous-ne-devez-plus-utiliser-en-francais-a-ete-publiee-au-Journal-Officiel-de-la-France/ mais qui est reprise du travail des commissions d’enrichissement de la langue française dont les résultats sont publiés au journal officiel, en l’occurrence : https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/jorf/id/JORFTEXT000034391219