Pretentious? Moi?

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Having a tête-á-tête with your fiancée in a restaurant (the à la carte menu specializing in meringues and crêpes) might sound like a cliché. But this chic establishment has panache. And your girl, though naive, is a clairvoyant brunette ex-ballet dancer whose coiffure resembles a baroque éclair topped with mayonnaise. (A little bizarre, this femme fatale, but no cliché.)

Linguistically speaking, with the exception perhaps of "coiffure," all the main words in that paragraph, though now acceptable English, were once as French as the Champs-Elysées or vichyssoise. (Did I say vichyssoise? In fact, this refreshing cold soup is as American as English muffins and London broil, even if it was the idea of an émigré chef of French extraction.)

The truth is that, when we speak English, to an astonishing extent we speak a foreign language. We've stolen words from everywhere.

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Today, the French (not without justification) are sometimes bothered by the infiltration of English and American words into their native tongue. But for centuries, they have felt no such reluctance about civilizing or colonizing (it depends on your viewpoint) English by introducing us to many French words.

Some of our French-origin words are so old that most of us have no idea that they were ever French - "origin," for instance, or "instance." (The French often got them earlier still from ancient Romans and Greeks.) Such words do undergo a change of spelling at times. Many of the words have become useful, often indispensable. Others have enriched English by providing subtle, silly, or absurdly pretentious alternatives to suit different contexts.

After all, absurd pretension is the lifeblood of humor, and humor an absolute prerequisite for a healthy - and non-chauvinist - society. And how much better off we are by being able to choose between "belly" and "stomach" or "carport" and "garage."

It may be that the use of the French words and phrases we now take for granted sounded insufferably snobbish at first. In Britain, the courtly superiority of French was actually forced upon us at one stage in our history (the Norman conquest that began with the invasion of 1066).

And still, nearly a thousand years later, word-usage specialists are fond of warning their readers against what early-20th-century English lexicographer H.W. Fowler called the "display of superior knowledge" by using French words where common English ones would do just as well. This, the old master of English usage suggested, was a "vulgarity."

But if no one had ever used French words pretentiously, such words might have been lost forever. English would be the poorer for it - n'est-ce pas?

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