My husband and I were in a jewelry store last Saturday, (I have a lovely new strand of freshwater pearls, by the way!), where we saw a display of incredibly sparkly rings, bracelets, and pendants.
The sign over the display read “something Pave.” I asked the clerk what it meant, speaking in my unadulterated American accent (“When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking; the second one falls asleep”).
“Pavé” the clerk corrected me, using the French pronunciation (the second vowel most certainly does not fall asleep!). “It’s French, so it sounds fancy” he explained, almost apologetically.
We Americans do indeed associate “French” with “fancy.” French restaurants, food, wine, perfume, and fashion are all considered “fancy.” (The word “restaurant” even comes from French! You can tell because it’s spelling is funny, even for English. More specifically, it uses “aur” to make to make an “ur” sound.)
Part of it is just that anything French is imported. Nearly anything imported immediately gains an aura of exoticism, which makes it seem fancy, even if it’s just soap.
But to really learn why French is “fancy,” we have to look to history.
Way, way back.
All the way to 1066 A.D.: the Norman Invasion. Duke William II of Normandy, France, was discontent with his dukedom, and set his sights on Merrie Olde England. He invaded England, ultimately succeeding at the final battle of his conquest, the Battle of Hastings, defeating King Harold Godwinson, to become the king of England. He was nicknamed William the Conqueror, for obvious reasons.
William the Conqueror imposed the feudal system on England (a French invention – again, given away by the spelling; the French really like the letter “u,” I guess). Under feudalism, poor laborers, serfs, were tied to the land and essentially belonged to their lords. Lords, in turn, swore fealty to the king, and paid him taxes and gave him military service.
The nobility of England was thoroughly Frenchified. Many English nobles were permitted to keep their status, but were expected to adapt to the king’s Norman way of doing things. This meant that French was the language of the royal courts, and, hence, of the nobility. Anglo-Norman French, to be exact, which is not the direct ancestor of modern French.
(Sidenote: modern French is derived from the dialect spoken in the Paris region, not Normandy, much like modern English is derived from the dialect spoken by the London elite, not of, say, Yorkshire.)
The common people, serfs, craftsmen, etc., usually didn’t learn Anglo Norman French. They would have spoken it poorly, if at all, and would most certainly not have been literate in it. Instead, they spoke Anglo Saxon, as they were accustomed to doing. They generally weren’t literate in their own language, either. (Anglo Saxon would, of course, develop into English.)
In fact, written Anglo Saxon more or less disappeared until after 1200, when government began to use English again both in writing and even in speaking to Parliament. Around 1350, writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer started to write in the Vernacular, or, language of the people. When these writers became popular, English regained more of the status it had had before the Norman Invasion.
Because English was the “common folk” language and French was the “noble” language, a lot of English words reflect the higher status of Norman French relative to Anglo Saxon. This is especially notable when it comes to words for food, particularly meats:
- “Beef” comes from Anglo Norman, but “cow” comes from Anglo Saxon.
- “Mutton” comes from Anglo Norman, but “sheep” comes from Anglo Saxon.
- “Venison” comes from Anglo Norman, but “deer” comes from Anglo Saxon.
- “Pork” comes from Anglo Norman, but “pig” comes from…you guessed it…Anglo Saxon.
The poor people, who grew the food, gave their words to the animals. But the nobles, who ate most of the food, gave their words to the final product.
There are lots of other “fancy” words derived from Anglo Norman French, such as “allegiance,” “adversary,” “boisterous,” “bourgeois,” “demeanor,” and “endow,” with many more down through the alphabet.
English again borrowed more words from French later on in the 1300s and again in the 1700s. In fact, French is tied with Latin at 29% for having the most English words derived from it. That even beats words derived from Germanic languages. That’s pretty darn impressive, considering English is a Germanic language.
In conclusion, our association of “French” with “fancy” dates all the way back to 1066, when William the Conqueror changed England forever.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of English, I highly recommend Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter. It’s a fascinating and humorous book, and a quick read.