I enjoy reading “Miss Manners,” an etiquette column in our local newspaper. (Her real name is Judith Martin.) Although I don’t always agree with her advice, her column is provocative and entertaining.
But this week Miss Manners wandered away from table manners to make a pronouncement about English. She holds a degree in English from Wellesley College, so she’s entitled to do that. But I found her reasoning faulty.
A reader complained about receiving invitations that included the request to “please RSVP.” The reader noted that RSVP (literally “respond, if you please” in French) already includes the word “please” and is therefore redundant. Would it be permissible for her to give a quick French lesson to the friends who issue the invitations?
Miss Manners thought not. But she did issue a request for readers to use the English language, not French, when issuing an invitation: “Please respond” or “The favor of a response is requested” would be better than the French RSVP.
Whoa. If we were to banish every French word from English, we would lose thousands of useful words. And I’m not just talking about obvious imports like “champagne,” “souffle,” and “saute.” We’d have to get rid of every -tion word (“election,” for example). And there are countless others that came from directly from French to English.
It’s true that Miss Manners’ suggested response doesn’t employ any French words. But “Please respond” is a Latin derivative, and so is the word “requested.” If we wanted to get rid of every Latin word, we’d really be in a pickle. (That sentence I just wrote is almost 100% English, but the rest of this post is replete with imported words. I don’t think I could write without them.)
Miss Manners’ campaign for English rather than French reminds me of the people who want us to install only native plants in our landscape. (My husband, a garden writer, runs into this kind of thinking all the time.) Crape myrtles, my favorite shrubs, aren’t native. They come from Japan. But they’re perfectly suited for Central Florida, where we live. In addition to the gorgeous blossoms, crape myrtles display attractive bark. They are pest resistant, drought resistant, and disease resistant. And they’re not invasive. Who cares about their ancestry?
Back to the French vs. English argument. (“Versus” is a Latin word, incidentally.) English usage is not based on historical principles, and logic isn’t useful either. The sole criterion is whether your target audience is comfortable with the word or expression in question.
Based on that reasoning, RSVP is in. Now, you could argue that “The favor of a response is requested” is more elegant. I’m with you. Or you could say that “Please respond” is more friendly than those four letters from the alphabet. I’m still with you.
But skip the specious reasoning, s’il vous plaît. Merci! (Maybe I should restate that: Skip the specious reasoning, please. Thanks!)