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February 17, 2007

The Perils of Foreign Cachet Product Names

Okay, so how do you pronounce "Vichysoise"? You know, the fancy French potato soup that's served cold. Is it vee shee swah? Or is it vee shee swahz?

And how do you pronounce "coup de grâce," the kindly act performed by the officer in charge of the firing squad at the end of his duties? You hear it all the time in the movies, and you probably say it yourself from time to time. Do you say koo duh grahss or is it koo duh grah?

Are you sure of that? Because the correct pronunciations (if we take as our index of correctness the way the words would be pronounced by an educated native French speaker) are, respectively, vee shee swahz and koo duh grahss.

It's funny, isn't it, how apt we are as Americans to characterize as "charming" the vaguely butchered English cobbled together by so many native French speakers? The French (and particularly the Parisians) certainly don't appear to be charmed by our less-than-perfect attempts to speak their language.

But I digress! This little essay is not really about the linguistic intolerance of the French. Nor does it seek to belittle those Americans whose pronunciation of French words is less than perfect. In fact, I would venture to guess that a majority of Americans would tend to pronounce one or both of the above French terms without the final consonant sound; swah and grah just sound more French, don't they? Besides, anyone who has ever suffered through a few Elementary French classes knows that half the consonants in French are silent. The question is just which ones!

So now consider this: Suppose you were trying to market a brand of fancy French potato soup to be served cold, and you wanted to benefit by the (you should pardon the expression) "cachet" that seems to be automatically conveyed by the French language in all matters culinary.

  • Would you dare call it Vichysoise, and, if you did, how would you pronounce it?
  • Would it be vee shee swahz (which is "correct" and therefore pleasing to the potential market in France, plus the rather limited group of Americans who have devoted years of study to the French language "as she is spoke by ze Parisien").
  • Or should it be vee shee swah (which might actually sound "righter" to a much greater number of American consumers)?

There is, of course, no absolute answer to this question. The problem cannot and should not be resolved without the requisite study and careful consideration it deserves.

Which brings me to the point I would like to make: be very careful when using foreign words to achieve cachet with a product name. Stopping by the foreign language department of the nearby college to see if your grammar and/or pronunciation are "correct" is simply not enough.

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Posted by Diane Prange at February 17, 2007 4:32 PM
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