I haven’t lambasted William Safire for a while now, and after his recent “Kifaya!”, helpfully describing the meaning (‘enough!’), usage (political protest), pronunciation, and even derivation (quoting Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic) of the titular exclamation, I was feeling downright charitable towards him. But no longer. His latest column, called “Putin/Poutine,” is a nasty piece of work, spreading what he must know are lies in the service of an animus against the French that I thought was passé by now even among the most fervent conservatives.
His column makes two simple points:
1) The French spelling Poutine for the president of Russia “is pronounced poo-TEEN,” which is not how the Russians say it (“POO-tyeen”).
2) The reason for this is that they’re trying to avoid the spelling Putin, which “would be pronounced as putain in French — that is, sounding close to pew-TANH [– which] means ‘prostitute; whore.'”
Point 1 is true; point 2, the entire raison d’être for his column, is ridiculous. He must know perfectly well that Poutine is the only possible way to write the name in French, that there’s a standard way to render Russian names in French (Lénine, Staline, Khrouchtchev) and they’re simply following it. He must also know that the French can’t possibly pronounce it à la russe (unless, of course, they study Russian) because they don’t have a stress accent; stress aside, they do a better job than Americans do, with our alveolar t and reduced unstressed i. I hold no brief for Putin, a nasty piece of work himself, and anybody who wants to make fun of him has my blessing (perhaps by comparing him to québecois poutine, which Safire mentions only parenthetically, to “head off a torrent of e-mail from Quebec”). But his column is supposed to be about language, not politics, and even by his own standards I’d say he’s disgraced himself.


  1. That’s funny, I didn’t know the French called Putin Poutine. Reminds me of the time a Canadian comedy troupe went to the US posing as reporters (which they often do) during the presidential election campaign and asked George W. Bush what he thought about the Canadian prime minister, Jean Poutine, who he was told had endorsed him. Bush had a lot of nice things to say about Jean Poutine, even though the Prime Minister’s name was Jean Chretien. The same comedians got the governor of Arkansas to congratulate Canada on the restoration of the national igloo, which they told him had been melting because of global warming. Tee hee. Mmmmm…poutine……

  2. Alex Smaliy says

    This is amusing. How can Safire even think of mentioning phonological fidelity when English speakers perpetrate offences against the Russian language on a daily basis? For one, why does “Boris” rhyme with “polis” in English, when it already has a common rhyming word with an identical stress pattern—”police”?

  3. Reading through a list of French and English press clippings a few weeks ago, I came across one entitled something like “Pourquoi Poutine laissez-t-il un passer en l’Occident” (emphasis on the ‘something like’ – my French writing is very, very bad). I clicked on it, expecting an article on why french fries and gravy wasn’t popular in Alberta. Oops.
    The Jean Poutine thing, by the way, is from Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans” special, which was a once-off thing, but remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. At the time, Mercer had a regular show, entitled ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes,’ which is where the troupe idea comes from.

  4. Maybe a good thing I rarely catch his columns, then. Excellent analysis, Sir Hat.
    In French, non-latin script names that contain an /u/ sound are always transliterated with “ou”, and the syllable /i:n/ does occur in French, spelled “ine”. It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that I can see to spell his name “Putin”.
    Some news casters do try to stress the name on the first syllable, but many don’t succeed. In particular, the stress pattern for “président Poutine” (or even “Vladimir Poutine) becomes the same as that for “président Chirac”, i.e. the entire two word bit has a principal stress on the last syllable.
    As for , hardly anyone in France knows what it is …

  5. Hrm, sorry.
    “As for poutine, hardly anyone …”

  6. Where does the mysterious Canadian foodstuff poutine fit into all this?

  7. I know I’m spamming your comment thread, but here’s a short and incomplete list of common French spellings (not necessarily approved transliterations, though — there’s a bit of variation) of Russian names:
    (Vladimir Ilitch Oulianov, dit) Lénine, Joseph Staline; Samouïl Adlivankine, Ivan Chychkine, Alexandre Drevine, Alexandre Kouprine, Sergueï Soudeïkine, Vladimir Tatline; Boris Akounine, Mikhaël Chichkine, Ilya Kotcherguine, Vladimir Makanine, Viktor Pelevine, Alexandre Pouchkine, Alexandre Isaïevitch Soljenitsyne, Vladimir Sorokine; and there’s Ariane Mnouchkine, who is French and was born in France.

  8. Iouchtchenko!
    He’s a nightmare for transliterations. But the system is the system: I can usually round trip from English to French (or Swedish) rendernings…

  9. Phonetically, Iouchenko would do no worse; even Iuchenko would be acceptable. The way many Ukrainians pronounce щ makes it sound like ch in French or sh in English. On the other hand, why not double the n lest the “en” should accidentally get nasal? And never mind the stress.

  10. I think the International Olympic Committee (or maybe some other sporting body) used to insist on French transliterations for Russian competitors. Is this still the case (if it ever was)?
    French sometimes changes the spelling of names from languages which are already in the Roman script, e.g. George Enescu became Georges Enesco (I think I read somewhere he changed it himself because he was sick of hearing it mispronounced). Ionesco is presumably the same, although Emil (Emile) Cioran kept his surname as it was. Polish has “Szekspir” (which I like).

  11. Russia used the French system of transliteration in all passports it issued until a year or two or three ago. A Russian citized named Putin may have a passport saying he is actually Poutine, and a US visa in it identifying him as Putin.

  12. Safire forgot to mention that the French called the previous Russian President “Eltsine”, and the one before that “Gorbatchev”. Just what are they up to? The French aren’t the only ones. Those Hungarians call the previous President of Russia “Borisz Jelcin”, can you imagine? And the Dutch write “Poetin”, why? just to avoid the word “Poot”, which means a male homosexual? Who knows?
    Seriously, good catch. What an embarassment for the Times to print drivel like this, Safire should be forced to print a correction.

  13. Why, why do they keep printing that man’s shoddy work?

  14. As one who finds Safire’s work supercilious, wrong-headed, and irritating, I thank you for taking him to task.

  15. Nigel Pond says

    Safire is an idiot, period. Maybe he should listen to GWB mangle a few names (including Putin’s) before he starts complaining about the French!!

  16. Richard Hershberger says

    What I find most remarkable about Safire’s column is not the errors, though they are plentiful, but just how uninteresting he manages to make discussion of language. I am enough of a language geek to happily read language blogs and post comments, yet I find his dreary cataloguing of 20th century political colloquialism to be soporific. It will undoubtedly be a treasure trove for some graduate dissertation fifty years from now, but I wouldn’t want to read that dissertation either. I can only imagine how people with no particular interest in language take him. The howlers are one of the main reasons to actually read the column.
    Let me put in a plug for Jan Freeman, the language columnist for the Boston Globe. She is sensible and takes the effort to be informed. She is the only popular language writer I read for content, rather than meta-content: I might read Safire because he is a prominent writer and I want to see what he is writing about; I read Freeman because she is likely to be saying interesting things and I can learn from her.

  17. I was gladwhen I saw the French spelling of the Russian leader’s last name. Putain would be the way I’d pronounce Putin in French if it was spelled that way. Not only does it mean whore (ho) but French speakers use it as an expletive.

  18. Richard: Thanks for pointing me to her; I just read her eminently sensible column on the verb “incent” and I think I’ll add her to the sidebar.

  19. Re: ou/u
    Is this why Rumania used to be spelled Roumania?
    re: getting Boris said right by Americans
    Borise? Maybe. But it looks like a girl’s name that way, and Rise in our office pronounces her name like Reesa.
    Borice — Everyone would say Bo Rice. Sounds like a good football player name, though.
    BaReese or B’Reese would work, but everyone would think he was Black Russian.
    What might work best? Spelling it like a Spanish name. Boris or Baris, with an accent mark over the i. People’d get that.

  20. Michael Farris says

    Some people call me Borice, because I speak of the pompitous of love ….

  21. “La poutine” reminds me of a story by Nikolai Leskov, Shtopal’schik (The Darner?). Due to a curious twist of circumstances, the protagonist, a genius at mending clothes, lives and works under the sign “Maître tailleur Lepoutant” (with a few misspellings), his real name being Laputin. As usual, Leskov is irresistible.

  22. “Poutine” was originally a fairly general Canadian French term for a variety of potato-based dishes, mostly Acadian. Three examples are poutine râpée, poutine à la râpure and poutine à trou.
    There’s some question as to whether “poutine” was derived from the English “pudding” or not.
    However, the popularity of the Québec fast-food variety has now more or less made the name “poutine” synonymous with gravy, whey and fries on a styrofoam plate.
    Most Canadians immediately associate it with this artery-clogging concoction!
    Interestingly, you can get various spicy Cajun dishes known as “poutine” down in Louisiana. Like all Cajun food, they’re quite delicious and less bland than Acadian fare.
    Also, in Canadian French, “poutine” tends to come out sounding more like “poo-tsinn” rather than “poo-teen.”
    On the matter of “Eltsine,” there’s simply no way in French to really capture that “y” (as in “yes”) sound at the beginning of a word. You could fiddle around with something cumbersome like “Hièltsine” but it’s a stretch.
    So it gets dropped in transliteration.

  23. To answer Vanya’s question ‘And the Dutch write “Poetin”, why? just to avoid the word “Poot”, which means a male homosexual? Who knows?’
    Because the pronunciation of ‘oe’ is different from ‘oo’. ‘oe’ is pronounced /u/, where ‘oo’ is a long o. The Dutch ‘poot’ rhymes with the verb glote.

  24. To Vanya, about the Dutch transliteration of the name Putin.
    In my language, Dutch, the sound ‘oo’ is pronounced as ‘o’ in ‘go’, while ‘oe’ is pronounced as ‘ou’ in ‘you’. That’s how we arrived at ‘Poetin’.

  25. Guys, Vanya knows that, he was making fun of Safire by imagining what idiotic thing he’d say about Dutch.

  26. Thanks LH, I had hoped that would be obvious.

  27. Richard Hershberger says

    A couple of years ago she quoted John Lawler regarding the dummy ‘it’. He commented afterward that she was the only language columnist who had ever sent him a draft of the column to review before publication, and that she was also only one one he thought understand what he said in the first place.

  28. Richard Hershberger says

    Urm… “She” being Jan Freeman…

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