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Misplaced elegance

Baltimore looks for prestige, for a little extra cache, or so a recent article suggested before the copy desk got at it.

The right word, of course, is cachet, pronounced ka-SHAY. A cache, pronounced kash, is a place where supplies are hidden for safety, or the supplies themselves. As a verb, to cache means to store something in a hidden place, as campers hide their food in a place where bears won’t find it.

This particular confusion of usage is more common than one would like to think, and The Sun has inveighed against it in Publish and Be Damned, our in-house newsletter on writing and editing. Apparently to little effect.

Cachet, in the sense of possessing distinction, derives from the same root as cache. In pre-Revolutionary France, the crown used the lettre de cachet, a secret, sealed letter containing a warrant, to imprison someone without trial. The cachet was the seal that kept the letter secret. A cachet has thus come to mean a seal or stamp on a document and, by extension from the lettre de cachet, a mark of official approval. Odd that a negative connotation should metamorphose into a positive, but that is how language works.

Why anyone would confuse the two words is obscure, but I suspect that some responsibility must fall to Cache, a retailer of women’s fashions that has added an acute accent to cache to suggest cachet. Now you see the peril of allowing retailers to influence English usage. (Macy’s uses a little star instead of an apostrophe in its logo, but that doesn’t mean that you should use little stars instead of apostrophes.)

Seek instead the prestige that comes to those hardy souls who use words in their correct senses.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:46 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

Point well taken but I suspect the etymology is a bit recherché. In French cachet has been used to mean a seal (either the positive form in wax or stone or the negative form of the die or signet) since at least 1464 (according to the Littré). Originally lettres de cachet were patents or general orders from the king stamped by him and usually countersigned by ministers. The cachet part refers to the king’s seal and hence the letter’s authority, not its secrecy. For the record, the sinister use they were put to later more often than not got you deported rather than shoved into the Bastille. The word is still common in modern French, used for a postal cancellation (also in English), or a stamped pill such as an aspirin, or of course as a seal.

Cachet has also been used to connote chic or original in a fashion sense since at least 1850 (again the Littré) and undoubtedly came into English directly from the French with this meaning.

I’m also not sure that there is an etymological link between cacher (to hide), stemming from the Old French quachier (to steal from sight) and cachet.

Another wrinkle is the French past participle caché (hidden), which is pronounced like cachet but spelled more nearly like cache. We are entering the golden age of prominence for the word caché, which is the title of a well-regarded current movie starring Juliette Binoche.

As for Caché, the clothing store, I suspect that, in addition to conjuring cachet, the store wanted to avoid being a homonym for cold, hard cash. Shopping there would have a grim undertone, like visiting your dentist, Dr. Payne.

Today's issue of The Phoenix, a Swarthmore College weekly, contains an instance of the cache/cachet confusion. See the penultimate paragraph.

http://phoenix/2006-02-16/living/15837

In computer engineering, by the way, "cache" is a high-speed memory component in which the processor stores data it has recently used. I doubt this jargon has impacted journalists' English, but in certain circles a CPU's cachet might vary with the size of its cache.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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