Are the French right to ban the word "hashtag"?

Cultural anxiety on twitter.

Last Wednesday, the French government’s snappily-named General Commission for Terminology and Neology issued a recommendation that French social media users should shun the term “hashtag” in favour of French alternative mot-dièse, or "hash word".

The recommendations of the Commission, which was created in 1996 in order to combat the influx of Anglo-American words, have been met with widespread criticism. The proposed term mot-dièse has been accused of not being Twitter friendly (it is longer than "hashtag" and contains an accent), and of being inaccurate– dièse actually denotes a musical sharp symbol (♯), rather than a hash sign. The outlawing of "hashtag" is also seen by many social media users as reactionary and futile; it has variously been described as a “Frankenstein word”, “ridiculous” and, fittingly (or ironically), it has been branded  an #epicfail on Twitter.

On first glance, the recommendation may seem ill-judged or even risible, but it begins to look a little more raisonnable when put in the context of a more general cultural anxiety. In the last fifty years, English words have become increasingly ubiquitous in French day-to-day life. This is largely thanks to the import of a great deal of American – and some British – television programmes and films, which are watched in VO (version originale) with subtitles. American music is also very popular in France; nothing is guaranteed to fill a French dance floor like the opening bars of the Black Eyed Peas hit I Gotta Feeling, though clubbers will sing along to only a few selected lyrics: “up!….off!… masel tov!… good, good night!”.

French governments of all political colours have fought to protect their culture from being dominated by a tradition alien to their own. Whilst Chirac’s conservative government introduced the terminology Commission in 1996, it was France’s much-revered socialist president, François Mitterrand, who created the “cultural exception”, which necessitated ‘cultural goods’ to be treated differently to other commercial products, encouraging the autonomous production of French art.  Mitterrand also introduced the controversial radio quota that necessitates that at least 40 per cent of music on France’s airwaves is in French. For the British, who tend to find patriotism a little embarrassing (though the Olympic Games proved an exception), this cultural approach may seem a little precious. But it is worth remembering that we too grumble about the "Americanisation" of the English tongue, despite the fact that we, at least, share the same language as our U.S. counterparts.

The proliferation of Anglicisms is particularly present in the world of beez-ness where terms like “debrief”, “meeting”, and “manager” are d’un common. In recent years, Paris metro carriages have been splattered with adverts for courses to learn "Wall Street English", depicted on the posters is a tanned man in a business suit, his mouth opened wide to reveal a tongue decorated with the stars and stripes. Little wonder, then, that many French people are often anxious about, what writer and French culture expert Lucy Wadham terms, the “relentless advance of Anglo-American capitalism.”

The dominance of English-based terms is nowhere more prevalent than in the ever-developing world of technology. The same Commission that coined mot-dièse has fought since the birth of the internet to preserve French terminology; along the way it has tried to promote French alternatives for ‘the web’ (la toile) and ‘email’ (courrier-électronique). But is it realistic, in a domain where new products, systems and concepts are being developed and created all the time – and therefore where words signify completely new phenomena – to seek translations for digital terminology? Speaking to The New Statesman, David Carzon, the web editor of French cultural magazine Télérama suggested that there is a distinction to be made between official and colloquial language. “[The state] cannot control colloquial language; "courrier éléctronique" is widely used in official communication , whilst "email" remains the preferred term in everyday language.”

He adds that “ultimately, it is [Twitter] users that will decide if mot-dièse will replace hashtag.” According to a survey this week, only thirty percent of a cross-section of 300  said they intended to start using the term, whilst 67 per cent said they would stick with "hashtag".

Carzon, however, does not view the adoption of English words as necessarily worrying for French culture. “French culture doesn’t seem to have been changed radically by the adoption of foreign words. Users are capable of appropriating their own language and integrating it in to their own culture without becoming "colonised".” For him, the internet is a symbol of cultural “mixing”, rather than hegemony. And he has a point – it is not anglais that the French have so taken to using, but franglais – a language in which English terms are adapted, used and mis-used to fit with French grammar, sensibilities and convenience. The hybrid term for a car-park, un parking, is a good example of this, as is the French adoption of le week-end, and the adapted French verb for texting, textoter —   which can be conjugated in every which French tense and mood, including the subjunctive. English film titles are often re-translated for their French release with "The Hangover" being re-named "Very Bad Trip", and 2010 rom-com "No Strings Attached" becoming the rather more blunt, "Sex Friends."

In any case, whether mot-dièse catches on or not – in spoken French at least – "hashtag" will never sound American or British; though the French use English words, they are always pronounced as if they were French. It is not really a question of mot-dièse vs hashtag, but rather mot-diese vs. ‘ache-tague’, so really la belle langue always wins in the end.

Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle