December 24, 2007

Pseudo-intellectual francophilic nonsense

James Kirkup, in his obituary for the French novelist Julien Gracq in today's Independent, refers to Spengler's view of the future (in Decline of the West) as

"a soulless expansionist Caesarism — a vision strikingly realised today in our all-enveloping nationalist, commercial and industrial "mondialisation"

and adds a baffling parenthetical remark about the latter word:

(the French term is so much more expressive than our banal "globalisation").

What could possibly be the justification for this supposed contrast?

French mond-ial-is-at-ion and English glob-al-iz-at-ion are not just synonymous but morpheme-by-morpheme equivalent, and etymologically cognate except for the roots: the French uses Latin mundus "world" and the English uses Latin globus "globe", probably via Old French. We now use "the globe" to refer to the world. But the former word is "so much more expressive", and the latter is "banal"?

I'll tell you what I think (have I ever let you down?): I think this is pseudo-intellectual francophilic nonsense. I think that if anyone in a literary context asserts that some French word has some property like expressiveness or poeticness that its English counterpart does not have, and/or that some English word is not as good as some French word of the same meaning, they are simply assumed to be saying something justifiable and probably true, because nobody dares to call them on it. I say there is absolutely no objective sense of "expressive" under which French mondialisation and English globalization could be determined to be non-equivalent.

I'm not saying you can't find contexts in which one is used and the other is not; indeed, that is true roughly 100 percent of the time, since virtually all the contexts for mondialisation are French contexts. I'm saying the claim of a difference in expressiveness is unsubstantiatable nonsense, designed mainly to cow you into thinking you are not intellectual enough to see the difference. Do not be cowed. You are just fine as you are. You cannot see the difference in expressiveness between these two words, and Language Log is here to give you the comforting news that there isn't one.

Talking of the Independent, I did write them a letter pointing out that their Health Editor had fallen for a hoax. I wrote:

It was good fun to see health editor Jeremy Laurance taken in by one of the British Medical Journal's famous Christmas jokes (22 December, page 19). Did no one on the editorial desk feel the slightest qualm of suspicion about a dermatologist correlating testosterone levels with unicycle jokes? And has Jeremy Laurance been tipped off yet, or is it going to be done at the Independent's Christmas party?

And did they print my letter? Why don't you try to guess.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 24, 2007 04:44 AM