If you hate “bureaucracy”, please fill out this form

April 15, 2010

The word bureaucracy comes from the French bureaucratie, a spelling that was also used in English for a time but is now obsolete. Einstein described bureaucracy as “the death of all sound work”, and the word’s connotations remain negative today. It has become a byword for excessive administrative red tape and institutional rigidity.

Bureaucracy evokes the high degree of hierarchical organisation to be found in a filing cabinet or storage office, i.e. in a bureau. Its representatives even gave rise to a kind of jargon: bureaucratese. Bureaucracy reminds me of Dilbert, Kafka, Orwell, Brazil, and a job I had lifetimes ago that required every action, item, and action item to be signed and dated — including signatures and dates. On that note, here’s a clip from Brazil:

The familiarity of bureaucracy overshadows its unusual morphology, which drew objections long before the word accrued its current pejorative associations. Added to the French base bureau is the suffix -cracy, from Greek -kratia, from kratos: strength, power, authority. So bureaucracy retained the French -eau- in its middle instead of adopting the usual linking -o- (democracy, technology). This awkward structure attracted fierce criticism from H.W. & F.G. Fowler:

The termination -cracy is now so freely applied that it is too late to complain of this except on the ground of ugliness. It may be pointed out, however, that the very special ugliness of bureaucracy is due to the way its mongrel origin is flaunted in our faces by the telltale syllable -eau-; it is to be hoped that formations similar in this respect may be avoided. (The King’s English)

Henry Watson Fowler, the elder brother, repeated his disdain in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

bureaucrat, etc. The formation is so barbarous that all attempt at self-respect in pronunciation may perhaps as well be abandoned. . . . it is better to give the whole thing up, & pretend that -eau- is the formative -o- that ordinarily precedes -crat &c.; all is then plain sailing; it is only to be desired that the spelling could also be changed to burocrat &c.

“Special ugliness”, “mongrel”, “barbarous” — one can almost feel Fowler’s blood pressure rising at these words’ very existence. Malformed they might be, but bureaucrat and bureaucracy are perfectly respectable — unlike the common misspelling beaurocrat, which adopts the middle -o- that Fowler desired, but promotes the -eau- instead of dropping it. I have also come across beauracracy and bureauacracy, and no doubt there are other freakish forms in use. We may need a bureau to organise them.

How do you feel about bureaucracy and its unvenerable variants?

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

Finding a folly euphonic

November 22, 2009



Qu’il est heureux de se défendre
Quand le coeur ne s’est pas rendu!
Mais qu’il est fâcheux de se rendre
Quand le bonheur est suspendu!
Par un discours sans suite et tendre,
Égarez un coeur eperdu;
Souvent par un mal-entendu
L’amant adroit se fait entendre.



How happy to defend our heart,
When Love has never thrown a dart!
But ah! unhappy when it bends,
If pleasure her soft bliss suspends!
Sweet in a wild disordered strain,
A lost and wandering heart to gain,
Oft in mistaken language wooed
The skilful lover’s understood.


I found this poem and its translation in Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies and Frolics (1880) by William T. Dobson, who in turn found them in Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature (1791–1823). Some lines seem rather loosely translated, but no matter. Dobson writes that the French author Claudine Guérin de Tencin once sang this verse to the writer and scientist Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, who was impressed enough to request that she repeat the performance. When she pointed out that the verses were mere nonsense, he admitted that they were “so much like the fine verses I have heard here, that it is not surprising I should be for once mistaken!”

An amphigouri, also amphigourie or amphigory, can be considered a burlesque equivalent of what is known in English as a nonsense poem or nonsense verse. The OED says the word is a learned jocular formation from amphi- (Greek for around, about) and allégorie, where the Greek -agoria means speech or speaking. Alternatively, the latter part of the word may have come from gyros, Greek for circle or ring: like these entities, an amphigouri is well-rounded and attractively presented, but has nothing of substance inside. As Dobson put it, the verse is “richly-rhymed, elegantly expressed, but actual nonsense!”

Nonsense it may be, but my ears prefer it to the non-rhyming, inelegantly expressed nonsense that sometimes passes for meaningful communication.

À la carte, à la, Al

April 8, 2009

In my previous blog post I introduced Al the principal, as part of a mnemonic to help distinguish principal from principle. Here is another Al, not imaginary this time, but more mysterious. If he was a chef at this restaurant, or its owner, there might be an acceptable pun in this sign, but as a misspelling for À it doesn’t cut the mustard.

Stan Carey - a la carte, al la carte

À la is short for à la mode de, which means “in the manner of” or “in the style of”. U.S. English often drops the grave accent (`). In French the preposition is followed by a feminine noun (the masculine form is au, a contraction of à + le), but as an English compound preposition it is independent of gender:

He staged a thrilling comeback à la Rocky.
The city plans a bicycle rental scheme à la Vélib’.
Their goodbye was bittersweet, à la Casablanca.

À la carte roughly means “by the card” or “according to the menu”, and implies that the customer can select from a choice of items, each of which is priced separately — as distinct from a menu with set meals and fixed prices (table d’hôte or prix fixe). The phrase may act as a noun, i.e. as shorthand for an à la carte menu or meal, but its adjectival and adverbial uses seem more common — an impression borne out by a search at the British National Corpus).

The menu is à la carte (adj.)
Shall we eat à la carte? (adv.)

À la was first used in English at the end of the 16th century, while à la carte appeared in 1826. The latter is one of many food-related à la… phrases imported from French and now thoroughly integrated into English. Sometimes à la carte has nothing to do with food. Neither à la nor à la carte needs to be italicised; I do so here only when discussing them in the context of their usage.

The widespread use of à la and à la carte makes one wonder how the misspelling “Al la carte” arose. An apostrophe is missing from “childrens”, and there is a strong case for making “menu” plural, but these lapses are so frequent in signs as to be mundane; it is the appearance of “Al” that makes it irresistible.

Tintiddle and l’esprit de l’escalier

March 9, 2009

Lately I went looking for the origin of the word blurb. The short answer is that Gelett Burgess coined it in 1907, and the long answer is that the more I rummaged the more I found, and the more I found the more I wrote, so I’ve postponed posting my findings until I’ve reduced them to a digestible size.

In the meantime I offer you tintiddle, another word coined by Burgess (1866–1951), who was an American artist, writer, critic and humorist. In his book Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, he defined tintiddle as:

An imaginary conversation; wit coming too late.

Everyone seems to have moments when they think of a devastating line some moments or months after the opportunity for its expression has passed. It is the perfect quip in all aspects but one: timing. This delayed wit occurred frequently to people descending stairs in 18th century France, and so the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–84) called it esprit de l’escalier – literally wit of the staircase – in his book Paradoxe sur le Comédien.

Freud mentioned it in The Interpretation of Dreams, while Emily Stolzenberg suggests that it may be ‘of greater consequence to the speaker’s pride than the listener’s pleasure’. The moment has passed but we imagine delivering the line anyway, to satisfy ourselves or to repair wounded pride.

The French idiom avoir l’esprit de l’escalier means to have the wit of the staircase, in other words to be a bit slow with repartee. If you’ve seen the French film Ridicule (1996), set in 18th century Versailles, you’ll remember the importance of swift comebacks to spare oneself social humiliation. Contemporary usage often drops this connotation; esprit de l’escalier now refers to a witticism too late for any situation, embarrassing or otherwise.

I have heard several people lament the lack of an equivalent term in English, but this lack is only apparent, for tintiddle is that term. You might prefer staircase wit, or even the German Treppenwitz, a calque from esprit de l’escalier. Some translate Diderot’s expression as ‘wit of the staircase’, which could suggests the staircase itself is witty – you can’t be too careful with words.

More on this from The King’s English by H. W. and F. G. Fowler:

The French have had the wit to pack into the words esprit d’escalier the common experience that one’s happiest retorts occur to one only when the chance of uttering them is gone, the door is closed, and one’s feet are on the staircase. That is well worth introducing to an English audience; the only question is whether it is of any use to translate it without explanation. No one will know what spirit of the staircase is who is not already familiar with esprit d’escalier; and even he who is may not recognize it in disguise, seeing that esprit does not mean spirit (which suggests a goblin lurking in the hall clock), but wit.