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The English have a word for it

For he himself has said it,
And it’s greatly to his credit,
That he is an Englishman!

For he might have been a Rossian,
A French, or Turk, or Prossian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!

But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!

Before I got distracted by W.S. Gilbert, I was puzzling over posts by my worthy colleagues at the Testy Copy Editors site. (Yes, dammit, we are testy. All of us. You got a problem with that?)

The post worried over a sentence from an article about the sinking last week of a Greek cruise ship: "'Navy divers searched around the sunken wreckage for a Frenchman and his daughter — the only two passengers still missing.'

"is Frenchman the preferred nomenclature here? shouldn't it just be French man? would you say Englishman or Scotsman?"

In fact, one of the successive comments endorsed French man, because Frenchman looked unfamiliar.

You can see the comments yourself:

These posts were baffling. Of course one uses Frenchman and Englishman, terms of long standing. Samuel Johnson, ever the vigorous nationalist, commented once, "A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing when he has nothing to say."

Perhaps the original query rose from a concern that Frenchman might be seen as a sexist term. But in English, a man who is a native of France is called a Frenchman.

It can be startling to discover that terms one has thought of as familiar for years strike colleagues as strange or inappropriate or just wrong. Once, at a newspaper far, far away, the supervising editor one weekend questioned the word Briton in a headline; he had never seen it before.

The headline ran over an article about the Falklands War, about which we had been running articles for several days, and, yes, articles in which we had used Briton as a term for citizens of Great Britain.

You may recollect that George III, our late monarch, said on his accession to the throne, "I glory in the name of Briton." As a native-born monarch of a German dynasty, he was entitled to. And the term was not novel in 1760.

We persuaded the weekend editor to allow Briton to stand — he couldn’t think of any other word that would fit, and I briefly harbored the heretical surmise that not all editors are put in authority because of their intelligence and literacy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:39 PM | | Comments (4)


Although it's a word of long-standing, Frenchman seems like an anachronism. It reminds me of Chinaman.

You might very well write something like ""A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not," but you also would write "A French man was killed yesterday when his car hit a utility pole on Route 1."

This post reminds me of when the sheriff of neighboring Jefferson Parish got in trouble for referring to a slim chance of something as "a Chinaman's chance." The entertaining part is that the sheriff, Harry Lee, is himself of Chinese descent.

Lest everyone think that I stopped reading contemporary work with the death of Jane Austen, I offer some more recent examples of "Frenchman" as a standard usage:

Great Pyramid was built inside out, Frenchman says
Reuters, 3/30.07

A Frenchman working for defense company Thales was arrested Tuesday for obtaining South Korean military secrets, prosecutors said.
Agence France-Presse, 3.21.07

A Frenchman facing extradition to his home country allegedly has close links to the Corsican Mafia and to a Corsican separatist group, police said on Friday.
Associated Press, 3/17/07

Frenchman wins Dakar Rally
Star Tribune, 1/22/07

A Frenchman was shot to death near an upscale restaurant in St. Lucia where he worked as a chef, adding to a rising number of killings on this small Caribbean island, police said Tuesday.
Associated Press, 12/5/06

When the spring bicycling classics ended Sunday, the scorecard for French riders was dismal. In the five classics, which were won by an Italian, a Belgian, a Swiss, a Luxembourger and a Spaniard, the highest placing by a Frenchman was seventh. In only one of those races did a Frenchman finish in the top 10 and in only two was a Frenchman in the top 25.
International Herald Tribune, 4/26/06

Did a Frenchman beat Mendeleev to the periodic table?
CNET, 11/21/06

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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
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