Richard Scholar

 

On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021

A close-up

I’d like readers to find their way to the book’s opening page. That page leads into the center of the book’s preoccupations by an indirect route, for it reveals an émigré word at work in the unlikely setting of Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne’s classic story for children of all ages. Bon-hommy is the French word. I show how it crackles with the energy of a literary work that, in a single sentence, reveals so much about English language and culture in its centuries-old, entangled, relation with French. Here is the page:

It is widely to be observed that those wishing, at little effort, to lend a certain intrigue to their English conversation season it with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi or some other soupçon of Gallic garniture. Even the introverted Eeyore, on occasion, reaches for the mot juste. Eeyore is the old grey donkey who lives in a corner of a field that is forever England in A. A. Milne’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh and friends. In chapter 6 of Winnie-the-Pooh, it is Eeyore’s birthday, a fact that his friends have all forgotten. When Pooh Bear chances upon Eeyore and wishes him a good morning, Eeyore doubts that it is a good morning, hinting darkly: “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” Pooh asks Eeyore to explain. The old grey donkey offers the following list of equivalent words and phrases: “Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.” A puzzled Pooh asks, “What mulberry bush is that?”, in response to which the donkey merely continues his variations on the theme: “‘Bon-hommy’, went on Eeyore gloomily. ‘French word meaning bonhommy,’ he explained. ‘I’m not complaining, but There It Is.’”

Et voila?: There It Is, indeed, the French word that bursts into flower in the midst of the most English sentence. A word of conspicuously French derivation serves Eeyore’s purposes well. It would be too painful for him to name in plain English the simple happiness of being alive that the irrepressible Pooh clearly possesses that morning and which the old grey donkey can’t and doesn’t, at the best of times, but especially when it is his birthday and They have all Forgotten. Instead, Eeyore names obliquely the capacity for happiness that is denied him, alluding to popular English rhymes that speak of it and producing synonyms that name it. He brilliantly introduces the last of these synonyms, bon-hommy, as a French word possessing the meaning of the selfsame word in English. He thereby specifies that meaning as evident to the likes even of Pooh Bear, while using the Frenchness of the word to emphasize its distance from himself, the discontented grey English donkey. His single-word code mixing of French in English at once connects him to, and separates him from, French ways of saying and being.

Eeyore’s flourishing of bon-hommy is an act of expressive indirection that reveals much about the history of English in its centuries-old relation with French…