Tuesday 10 November 2009

Terms of engagement

Saturday's Times carried a letter in which some "matrons in the Shires" took issue with Giles Coren's references to his "girlfriend", when the pair had already announced their engagement. "Esther is rather more than a "girlfriend" now," they chided, the inference being that her future husband ought to acknowledge her instead as his fiancée . Mr Coren's response was short and eloquent: "Yes, but 'fiancée' is such a horrid word...".

The word "fiancé(e)" is one which evokes strong emotions, not all of them romantic. As long ago as 1949, the novelist Angela Thirkell wrote testily about "the dreadful word fiancée...what we can do about it we really do not know".

What can we do about it? Some people, like the columnist above, avoid it altogether and refer to their girlfriend or boyfriend as just that until they are married. Some accommodate it through feats of mispronunciation - like my colleague who pronounces it to rhyme with séance - while others reach for the thesaurus and dust off alternatives such as betrothed or intended.

What puzzles me is why it causes such awkwardness. I have seen it accused of being pretentious and of sounding like a "middle manager at a high street bank". But the most probable explanation is that, as a French loan word which has not been anglicised* in any way, it sounds strained and unnatural in English. It may also carry a whiff of genteelism, if the example of other French borrowings like "serviette" is anything to go by.

* One of the posters here refers to her father, who in "inimitable West Virginia fashion" pronounced the word as “fi-ancy” ("fi" as in hi-fi). To me, this sounds much better.

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