The best books on just how much English owes French (and why most English speakers are loath to admit it)

Richard Scholar Author Of Émigrés: French Words That Turned English
By Richard Scholar

Who am I?

I have long been struck, as a learner of French at school and later a university professor of French, by how much English borrows from French language and culture. Imagine English without naïveté and caprice. You might say it would lose its raison d’être My first book was the history of a single French phrase, the je-ne-sais-quoi, which names a ‘certain something’ in people or things that we struggle to explain. Working on that phrase alerted me to the role that French words, and foreign words more generally, play in English. The books on this list helped me to explore this topic—and more besides—as I was writing Émigrés.


I wrote...

Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

By Richard Scholar,

Book cover of Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

What is my book about?

Émigrés examines the continuing history of untranslated French words in English. It asks what these words reveal about the fertile but fraught relationship that England and France have long shared and that now entangles English- and French-speaking cultures all over the world.

The book demonstrates that French borrowings—such as à la mode, ennui, naïveté, and caprice—have, over the centuries, “turned” English in more ways than one. It invites native Anglophone readers to consider how much we owe the French language and asks why so many of us remain ambivalent about the migrants in our midst.

The books I picked & why

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Marriage A-La-Mode

By John Dryden,

Book cover of Marriage A-La-Mode

Why this book?

This is a sparklingly funny play. I love its contemporary freshness, its fleetness of foot, and its irreverence. It satirizes the fashion for all things French among London’s social climbers. It sugars the pill of all that satire by bringing a fast-paced plot to a comic ending of marriage and reconciliation. It taught me that writers in seventeenth-century England like the play’s author, John Dryden, were importing words and ideas from France as they sought to trace a middle way between a servile mimicry of French culture and an insular rejection of it. 


The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

Why this book?

This is cultural history with a difference and of a difference. It teaches you a lot about the reputation for fashionable culture that France enjoyed for centuries all over the world and continues to enjoy to this day. How much of all that is already packed into the book’s subtitle! The rest of the book is just as accessible and lively and unwilling ever to take itself too seriously. 


The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare

By Deanne Williams,

Book cover of The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare

Why this book?

This is a brilliant essay in literary criticism. It traces English ambivalence towards French language and culture in the centuries that followed the Norman Conquest. It does so by delving into major literary texts—by Chaucer and Shakespeare among others—that explore that ambivalence for what it is: the symptom of a fetish. I like the way Williams writes and I find her inspiring in her desire to remain faithful to the complexity of the texts she studies and their attitudes.


Ennui

By Maria Edgeworth,

Book cover of Ennui

Why this book?

Ennui is a hidden gem of a novel. I admire the way it deftly weaves together personal lives and political histories on either side of the Irish Sea. I have come to feel strongly that the author, Maria Edgeworth, is unjustly overlooked by literary history in favour of Jane Austen. Yet Austen drew inspiration from her older contemporary. In this novel, Edgeworth draws on French words and ideas to tell the tale of an over-entitled English lounge lizard who is cured of his fashionable affliction—the ennui of the title—by his travels and travails in Ireland. The result is a cosmopolitan novel crackling with invention and implication.


The Naïve and Sentimental Lover

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of The Naïve and Sentimental Lover

Why this book?

This is a bittersweet comedy of manners in which John le Carré ventures way beyond the spy novels for which he is more famous. For lovers of spy novelsand I am one suchthere is much here to savour. Le Carré draws upon the French concept of the naïve – as paired with the sentimental by the German essayist Friedrich Schillerto inform and enliven the telling of a tale about a love triangle in middle England. Underlying the comic idiom of the novel is an acid dissection of the causes of British failure to be a part of Europe and to help lead Europe out of her darkness. A tale, perhaps, for our times. 


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