Longtime readers will know of my great fondness for the writing of Adam Gopnik; as I have said, he has been the main reason I keep subscribing to The New Yorker, and his absence from its pages recently (apart from the occasional squib) is one reason I’m letting my subscription lapse. For the time being I’m still receiving issues, though, which is good, because the latest contains a new Paris Journal by Gopnik, “The End of the World” (not online [but there’s now a summary and image]). The apocalyptic title refers to the recent scandal involving Le Monde (‘The World’), the most influential newspaper in France. As Gopnik says:

It is hard to adequately explain what Le Monde means to France. People say that it is like the Times in New York, but the Times seems, in comparison, modest in its ambitions. The Times, like certain pagan gods, claims only omnipresence: it is everywhere and sees all. Le Monde, like the God of the Old Testament, claims omnipresence and omniscience: it sees all, knows everything, and is always right.

I won’t go into the newspaper’s troubles, but I will pay homage to Gopnik’s inimitable way with English prose.

Gopnik begins by explaining that Le Monde appears in the early afternoon of the day before its cover date; thus when you read the paper on Monday, you are being spoken to with the voice of Tuesday:

Even news that has not yet taken place is thus imbued with a note of calming retrospective hindsight. The postdating of actuality is typical of Le Monde‘s loft and what was, for a long time, its serenity.

The unexpected word loft startled me; then I envisioned a golf ball (closely covered with type) soaring, hanging, taking in an overview of the surroundings while lesser orbs hurtled in their nervous eagerness directly at me, finally descending magisterially onto my coffee table, ready to give me its considered view. “Loft”: le mot juste.

In the course of describing the paper’s areas of coverage, he says: “On Fridays (that is, Thursdays), the paper does what is, by New York standards, a fairly cursory job of covering food and restaurants, perhaps for the same reason that the Times does a fairly cursory job of covering pigeons: they are just too familiar to notice much.” A strained analogy? Perhaps, but I don’t care; the brio wins me over.

And this analysis of why the top men at the paper were so stung by the accusations includes a great example of an “English idiom” invented by Frenchmen:

Yet the irritant for the subjects of the assault lay in details of supposed bullying and alleged meanness. Indictments accuse, but it is details that vilify. Plenel [the executive editor] was shown harassing small, independent journalists who he thought might beat him to the Jospin-outing punch… Minc [the board chairman], Péan and Cohen suggested, had been comically out of his depth in a business venture in Belgium. (He was, they write, in what they imagine is an English idiom, “too clever by oath.”)

If I notice Gopnik’s byline with any frequency in future issues, I suppose I’ll have to send them my money after all.


  1. I encountered many such pseudo English idioms in Taiwan, it would be great to trace their origins. In Taiwan I think the problem is that they assume that English uses idioms in the same way that Chinese use four-character expressions, and so they produce masses of books where people can study and memorize these idioms, many of which I’ve never heard of.

  2. German is also keen on this trick. The ubiquitous term handy which every German speaker automatically assumes to be a genuine English term.
    They seem almost disappointed to learn that we call the same thing a mobile phone or cell phone.
    I heard another new example the other day but I’ve lost it for now…

  3. Hat, thanks for drawing my attention to Gopnik, whose name I’d heard, but who’s prose I hadn’t encountered. I agree that he’s good.
    My favorite of your examples is his use of “loft”. For me as a reader, there are few things more reliably pulse-quickening than the judicious and unusual deployment of a short word of Old-English (as opposed to Norman) origin.
    My youth was marred by the notion that Latinate complexity was the mark of erudition. When Soyinka won the Nobel Prize, we assumed it was because he knew all the big words. (And the big noisy sentence is still, in the eyes of certain critics, what qualifies a work as “ambitious”.)
    The years (I hope) have brought some wisdom, much of it in the guise of Joyce’s “Dubliners” and Seamus Heaney’s underrated critical prose. In these two (and in Heaney’s poems), short powerful words emerge from the bogs, reeking of the past, possessed of an archaeological grandeur, still bearing the traces of the grunts we (speakers of English) imagine our Anglo-Saxon ancestors to have spoken.
    Words hewn of good wood, a stand against the ubiquity of plastic.

  4. The comments about France’s Le Monde are quite accurate. When I lived in France and spoke adequate (meaning imperfect yet quite functional French), it was troubling to not be able to understand Le Monde as I do The New York Times in my native English. It was then and still is a central piece of French intellectual life.

  5. The comments about France’s Le Monde are quite accurate. When I lived in France and spoke adequate (meaning imperfect yet quite functional French), it was troubling to not be able to understand Le Monde as I do The New York Times in my native English. It was then and still is a central piece of French intellectual life.

  6. I also saw passages of pseudo-English in Taiwan, the most memorable of which was a T-shirt worn by a girl explaining in about 30 ungrammatical words that Minnie Mouse was lonely for Mickey. Mickey Mouse wasn’t exactly a sex symbol over there, but Chinese girls seemed to fear dramatic, sexy guys and preferred nice, kindly ones.
    “Loft” in contemporary English is “hang time”, though Gopnik’s choice works better.
    My guess is that every Frenchman is his own restaurant critic and that they’d all resent having le Monde try to tell them anything. Even in the US, serious foodies want to discover their own polaces and keep them obscure.

  7. elck, i am a native speaker of english and i am not anglo-saxon nor do i have any anglo-saxon ancestors

  8. elck, i am a native speaker of english and i am not anglo-saxon nor do i have any anglo-saxon ancestors

  9. Souq:
    (Why is your first comment above written in my name?)
    I’d hoped the parentheses in my comment would have made it clear I was talking about *linguistic* ancestry.
    TRUST ME I ain’t Anglo Saxon neither.

  10. About retrospective hindsight:
    Let me quote a small excerpt from the book I’m currently reading.
    …There are those who despise us for writing the news before it happens. They fear us not because we are journalists but because we can predict the future; you should see how amazed they are when things turn out exactly as we’ve written them. And quite a few things do happen only because we’ve written them up first. This is what modern journalism is all about. …
    [“Snow” by Orhan Pamuk]
    The newspaperman in the novel works not for Le Monde but for a [fictional, of course] rag in Kars, border town in Turkey.

  11. Tatyana: I’m dying to read Snow.
    souq (if that is your real name): Trust me, elck ain’t Anglo Saxon.
    Toby: When I was in Paris, I quickly grew impatient trying to make my way through Le Monde and settled on the livelier Libé as my morning read… but I did feel I was missing out on a basic feature of French culture.

  12. John Jainschigg says

    They mean ‘too clever by half,’ don’t they?
    I will be _so_ embarassed if you’d all figured that out, already.

  13. Don’t be, JJ – at least this one haven’t. Thanks, I was kinda puzzled…

  14. Sorry, I should have mentioned the standard form.

  15. When I was last in Cornwall, Le Monde was all I could get, and I must admit I did rather acquire a taste for it.
    Passive omniscience is very soothing, I find. I used to enjoy The Economiste for much the same reason until it jumped one shark too many.

  16. elck:
    (above post written in yr name as I mistook the field for repyto: not name: –sorry!)
    i think i have just become oversensitive to this due to living in france, where everyone starts conversations with me with: “you anglo-saxons…”, which they take as a synonym for anglophone…

  17. Le Monde publishes under the next day’s date because as a Parisian-based p.m. newspaper, it gets sold in the provinces the next day – so there it is supposed to look as fresh as the next day’s morning papers. Of course nobody’s fooled, but originally (1945) it must have made some sense.
    As for the restaurant reviews, they may be sparse but individual ones can be lengthy, and they range from eulogistic to savage, no compromises. There are often fascinating (to me) articles on broader food subjects.
    Having lived and worked in Paris for 23 years, I’m lucky to have Le Monde and Figaro in my local newsagent (news stand) in London every day. They give a different slant to the news and often interesting coverage of parts of the world not covered in the British press.

  18. I’m dying to read “Snow”, too.
    As you know, LH, I’m a Gopnik fan too, much more of his Paris writing than what he’s done after; thanks for the notice about this piece – I let my subscription lapse a year ago.

Speak Your Mind