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Le “Hashtag” Controversy: Why Legislating Language Doesn’t Work

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Chris Kent

Pity the poor civil-servant writer in France, who is supposed to follow the dictates of the learned men and women of the Académie Française when it comes to choosing words to describe the Internet and online activities. The Académie is charged with maintaining the purity of the French language, and in recent years, keeping English words from worming their way into daily français.

The Académie’s latest pronouncement bans the word “hashtag” from government documents presumably referring to Twitter. The replacement: “mot-dièse” (“dièse” being the French word for the musical sharp symbol).

The Académie appears to be struggling to reconcile the barrage of new words, almost always originating in English, to describe technology and online trends and products. Hence its attempts to replace “cloud computing” with “informatique en nuage” and “startup” with “jeune pousse” (young shoot). These efforts have largely failed, and are generally cause for amusement in the French press: the news magazine Le Point described “mot-dièse” as “another word that risks a rapid death.” (I can’t wait until the Académie says it’s replacing “tweet” with the French word “pépiement.”)

Legislating language is generally a losing battle, and not just in France. Every community—a country, a region, or the professional audience you’re writing for—has a fluid vocabulary that’s constantly making room for new words and tossing off old ones. As a marketer, your job is to monitor the language your audience adopts. Using their words in your writing helps give your words greater credibility.

Of course, this is a constant balancing act. Be too formal and ignore accepted jargon, like the Académie Française suggests, and your writing will seem stuffy and out of touch. Pick up every slang word and acronym your audience uses and your writing may come off as unprofessional or overly chummy.

Technology product marketers might be starting to weave the cringe-worthy word “glocal” into their product marketing documents, but I don’t think it’s ready for wide use. On the other hand, terms like “crowdsourcing” and “big data” are recognizable enough that they don’t cause the reader to do an eye roll or think “wait, what??”

When in doubt, type the possibly offending word into the search box of NYTimes.com or WSJ.com. If you see numerous references to the term in general news articles, you’re probably safe. For the record, I tried this out with English-language terms like “startup,” “email,” and “tweet” on the website for French newspaper Le Monde, and got hundreds of results. So, Académie Française, you may want to throw in the serviette on the whole tech-language thing.

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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