FIFA, ‘disloyal’ fees, and false friends

In the world soccer scandal, the dubious translation of a Swiss-French legal term highlights the confusions caused by ‘false friends.’

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The Volkswagen diesel fiasco may have bumped the turmoil around the world body for soccer out of the top spot on the league standings for European scandals.

But “Johnson,” the language blog over at The Economist, has pointed out an aspect of the soccer scandal that’s worth noting here, too. If you’re just tuning in: Sepp Blatter has been under fire for “corruption.” He heads FIFA, the international body governing soccer, or football, as it is known virtually everywhere outside the United States.

He insists on his innocence. But FIFA’s ethics committee provisionally banned him Oct. 8. By the time you read this, he may be gone altogether. Or not.

What “Johnson” took note of was the Swiss prosecutors’ press release accusing Mr. Blatter of signing a contract deemed unfavorable to FIFA and of making what was reported as a “disloyal payment” to the head of the Union of European Football Associations.

How can money be “disloyal”?

Paiement déloyal is a Swiss-French legal term with “no exact proxy in legal English,” “Johnson” explains. “ ‘Corrupt’ is too strong.... ‘Illicit’ is close – meaning originally without ‘license’ or permission. But etymologically, plain ‘illegal’ might be the closest thing.”

There are plenty of lively English renderings for déloyal – dishonest, unfair, underhanded, below the belt, unsporting. 

But these perhaps lack juridical gravitas. And so the English-language press went with the head-scratching “disloyal.” Both legal and loyal come from the Latin word for law. Legal, though, had a more direct association with courts and the law.

Loyal came into English via Middle French, where the word had broadened to mean good quality and faithfulness. As the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, “Sense development in English is feudal....” The original “loyal” servant was one “faithful in carrying out legal obligations.”

Déloyal in the sense of “illegal” is an example of something English-speaking students of French learn to watch for: “false friends.” These words look familiar but mean something close-but-not-quite to their English equivalents. The French déception, for instance, is “disappointment,” not “deceit.” Assister means simply to “attend” lectures, for instance, not to help the professor out. Attendre is waiting, not “tending” (not waiting on, in other words). And lecture is reading, not what a professor does in front of a class.

French has been a powerful influence in English ever since the Norman Conquest. For English-speakers, it’s smart to watch out for dubious translations of “false friends,” whether in French class or at any of the numerous international organizations where English and French share top billing as the working languages, including the United Nations, NATO, and even FIFA – the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

And FIFA (pronounced “fee-fah”) makes for a much more graceful acronym, don’t you think, than would “the WBGtSTJAEbUACF” – the World Body Governing the Sport That Just About Everyone but Us Americans Calls Football.

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