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Le Mot Juiced

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The other evening, while watching a rerun of Antiques Roadshow (yes, I'll admit my life is rather dull), I was shocked to hear one of the ritzy appraisers describe a rare objet d'art some lucky soul brought in with a bunch of other stuff as the "coo de graah." Of course he meant "coup de grâce, a much-misunderstood French expression. He was misusing the term since it does not mean the best of the best, or even the ultimate prize, as he seemed to indicate.

It is a Gallic term meaning death blow, originally used to describe the mercy killing at the end of a duel if someone is fatally wounded. But in order to show how récherché and sophisticated this poseur was (he is a connoisseur after all) he chose to pronounce it in what he presumed was the correct French manner. But coup de grâce does not rhyme with Mardi Gras! The word grâce has the same "ahse" sound as the Spanish word "mas" and is the same in French as "glâce" or "place." No one would ever think of saying "Plaah de la Concorde."

What that so-called expert was doing is nothing new. People have been mispronouncing words ever since the Tower of Babel collapsed (they had shoddy construction standards even then). But what is unsettling about this bit of pomposity is that it is part of a disturbing new trend, a nouvelle vague of excessive vagaries. A few days before that TV show, I'd rented a DVD from Netflix, part of a Film Noir collection I'd wanted to see. Listening to the accompanying commentary, however, I was shocked, shocked! to hear the so-called expert in film noir pronounce it as "film nwah." The word is "noir," guys. It rhymes with "soir." There is an 'r" on the end of it. Otherwise you are saying "film nut" which you may be, but please keep it to yourself.

Sadly, the film noir aficionado is the perfect example of a type of poseur, a verbal show-off who thinks he's in the know. How many times have you heard someone say he is writing his "mem-wah"? Memoir, like film noir, should have an "r" at the end, even in French. This phenomenon is technically referred to as hyperforeignism, an offshoot of hypercorrecting. But I prefer to call a person who does it a pseudophone. Such people think they know the nuances of sound and language better than others and in order to enlighten us, they deliberately over-pronounce French words, thinking they belong on the Seine sipping Pernod with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Very often these same American "experts" sport berets and order premier cru wines in restaurants, even though they always put ketchup on their steak frites. Let's hope it's not on the "prix fixe" menu! That they inevitably mispronounce as "pree fee" thinking they're so much cleverer than you or moi.

Such pretentiousness is not confined to the realm of antiques. Interior designers are equally prone to gaffes. I used to write for Architectural Digest, House & Garden and Metropolitan Home. I often ran into pseudophones in that world. How many times have I heard a decorator describe a divan as a "chase lounge." The word is chaise longue, guys. It means "long chair." (Not lawn chair, by the way). Elsie de Wolfe would never have been caught dead making such a faux pas. And neither should these overpaid (and often over-charging) inferior desecrators.

Once when I was doing a story for a shelter rag, I was asked to interview a high-powered decorator who was designing a pad for a famous film star who lived in LA, but who needed a penthouse in New York. The designer kept saying to me that she wanted to give this actress an attractive "pierre de tier" in the city. Could she have meant pied à terre? I was perplexed. The first time she said it, I wasn't sure I heard her correctly. So later I asked her to fax me a list of the various improvements she'd made. On this form she wrote "pierre de tier" in big letters on top. I wouldn't have minded so much if the glitzy starlet had made the error, but this was her decorator who was being paid a gazillion dollars to give her some much-needed panache.

I'm not sure when this trend to mispronounce words in order to sound smarter than other people really got started. Perhaps it began with the "Scanties," those wild evenings in the theater during the Roaring Twenties when dancers wore nothing but very revealing lingerie on stage. If you love old movies, as I obviously do, you will notice that in the early Talkies, Americans still pronounced "lingerie" in an approximation of the French style: "lan-ger-ee." But starting in the '50s, it seems, people started saying "lawn-ger-ay." Pourquoi? Probably because they thought it had an accent on the end, and gave it a needless extra French twist.

Same with that marvelously faux French designer Henri Bendel, often pronounced "On-ree Bon-delle." The guy who started that company was as American as apple pie. Not even Geraldine Stutz, who transformed the store into a household name, pronounced it that way. To her it was just Bendel's, as in Gregor Mendel's. Let's not forget Ralph Lauren. When did people start pronouncing his last name as if he were born in Versailles? His original name was Lifshitz in any case. But Lauren should rhyme with Lorin as in Lorin Maazel, not Sophia Loren.

The best place to meet pseudophones is in chic French restaurants. In particular, La Grenouille. Did you stumble on that word? I'm not surprised. It's a real doozy and means frog. The French pronounce it in a way that makes their lips gyrate like a belly dancer. But au courant Americans mispronounce it as "La Gren-wheeeee" as if they were on a roller coaster. The end of la grenouille sounds a bit like "oeil" which is French for "eye." But very few Americans can pronounce that even when they're bragging about their expensive, still-unpaid-for "trompe l'oeil" wallpaper. Perhaps that is why Jane Stanton Hitchcock called her artsy mystery set in high society Trick of the Eye. I still like the French version better.

The literary world is not free from the pseudophone curse. All you have to do is bring up the novel, The Lover, by Marguerite Duras. People go around saying her last name as "dur-rah" thinking it is similar to Alexandre Dumas (both père and fils), but for reasons that defy logic (and the French often do), the "s" is pronounced on this particular name.

In the art world, it's Degas. Notice there is no accent on the "e". But that doesn't stop art critics from inserting one. It is rare to hear anyone pronounce his name correctly, although recently on Charlie Rose, I heard an erudite Met curator say it the right way. It restored my faith in humanity. Music buffs go into contortions with the name Camille Saint-Saëns, the French composer of "The Swan," that glorious piece of music that Pavlova once pretended to expire to. It's pronounced like "sans" with the "s". Probably because of that strange little trema (a French kind of umlaut or diaeresis) over the "e". But tell that to the guy on my local classical music station. He insists that it is "San Son" and sounds like he's singing the aria Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saëns's opera Samson et Dalila.

The problem is that pseudophones think they exude a certain "cachet" when they mispronounce words. And very often they mispronounce the word "cache," as in a secret hiding place, as "cachet" too. It's enough to drive a person "fou." But they go right on sashaying their way through cache and cachet.

And let's not get started with the word "forte" as in "linguistics was never my forte." The word is derived from French, and is often confused with the musical term "forte" which is Italian. The latter does have a long "ay" sound at the end. But the French term should not. It stems from a fencing term for the toughest part of a sword and means strength. I once got into a battle royal with a fellow over this issue. He went back to Medieval French to prove to me that I was wrong. And maybe he's right after all. Perhaps a million years ago there was a French word "forté" with an accent aigu. But it is not in the dictionary now. All of which reminds me of that excruciatingly annoying expression "battle royale." When did people begin to add that extraneous "e" on the end? The expression is British, not French. It's "battle royal," pure and simple. It does not have to sound like a sequel to Casino Royale.

It's not just French words that pseudophones abuse. I can always spot a phony when they tell me they bank at "Citicorp," but pronounce it in the French style as "City-core." The word "corp" is short for "corporation"! Please spare us the pretense. Curiously, you never ever hear someone in the Marine Corps call Citicorp, "City-core." It's only the draft-card-burning Francophiles who think they know how to speak accurately, comme il faut.

But who am I to judge? I'll never live down the time I was at the Oak Room at the Plaza in New York with some college chums and in order to show how mondaine (as opposed to mundane) I was, I dramatically ordered a "drahm-bwee-ooo" on the rocks. I assumed the liqueur was a French digestif such as Benedictine and brandy.

The bartender looked at me, mystified. "What was that?" he asked politely, leaning closer to hear me. I repeated my request. "Oh you mean, Drambuie!" he shot back, laughing, pronouncing it as "dram-boo-ee." I replied that I was just pronouncing it correctly in the original French tongue. He chuckled and brought the bottle over and pointed out to my friends and to me that Drambuie comes from Scotland. I was mortified, but humbled. He poured me a snifter and said "sur la maison." His gesture really was the coup de grâce.