U.K. political snobbery mostly ignored in U.S. media

« previous post | next post »

At brunch on Saturday, a friend who gets his news from The New York Times observed that he'd read nothing about the Plebgate trial, which has been covered obsessively in the British press (see "Plebgate judgment", 11/28/2014, for some links). And he didn't miss an obscurely-placed item — as far as I can tell from searching the site, the Gray Lady covered the earlier stages of Andrew Mitchell's defense of his reputation ("Britain's Bobbies in the Dock", 3/18/2014; "Cloud is cast over Britain's Institutions", 10/24/2013; "The Fall Guy and the Bobbies", 10/18/2014; "British Police on Defensive Over Downing Street Clash", 10/16/2013), but has not yet published anything about the defamation trail and its 11/27/2014 verdict.

There isn't a complete NYT blackout on U.K. political brouhahas — thus last Friday saw an Op-Ed by Kenan Malik on the Emily Thornberry affair ("A Collision with 'White-Van Man'", NYT 11/28/2014– see "Class war skirmishes in England", 11/26/2014, for more details and links).

The Washington Post ran an Associated Press story on the Mitchell verdict ("Judge: British minister did call policemen ‘plebs’", 11/27/2014) as well as a staff writer's take on the Thornberry fuss (Adam Taylor, "How this seemingly innocuous tweet forced a British MP to resign", 11/20/2014).

Neither paper covered David Mellor's cab-driver rant.

Given the vivid U.S. interest in British class-system dramas, I find it puzzling that these stories have gotten so little media attention on this side of the Atlantic.

And then there's the François Hollande / Valérie Trierweiler / Julie Gayet triangle in France– a whole different set of cultural stereotypes. Though a bit of alleged linguistic snobbery played a role there as well — "'SANS-DENTS'. Trierweiler menace de sortir des SMS de Hollande : stop ou elle a raison ?" Nouvel Observateur 9/11/2014:

Dans "Merci pour ce moment", livre de Valérie Trierweiler déjà écoulé à près de 150.000 exemplaires, un point a énormément choqué.  

François Hollande parlerait des "sans-dents" pour se moquer des Français les plus pauvres. Voici l'extrait en question :  

"Il s'est présenté comme l'homme qui n'aime pas les riches. En réalité le président n'aime pas les pauvres. Lui, l'homme de gauche, dit en privé: 'les sans-dents' très fier de son trait d'humour."

In "Thank you for this moment", Valérie Trierweiler's book that has already sold 150,000 copies, there was one enormously shocking point.

François Hollande would use the phrase "the toothless" to make fun of the poorest in France. Here's the extract in question:

"He presented himself as a man who doesn't like the rich. In reality, the president doesn't like the poor. He, the man of the left, calls them in private "the toothless ones", very proud of his witticism."

 Update — The NYT finally took notice of the UK events, a couple of weeks late, in a Sunday Review piece by Steven Erlanger: "British Noses, Firmly in the Air", 12/5/2014. Mr. Erlanger offers a clue about American media's lack of interest in these matters:

As Britain becomes more global, it also becomes more regional — Scottish independence, London as the great sucking black hole of talent and money — and small differences, and ancient rules and distinctions, seem to matter more in a country that, as the old cliché goes, has lost an empire and still not found a role.



  1. RP said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    In other UK news, another member of Parliament, Penny Mordaunt, was apparently "dared" by her mates in the navy to say a rude word in the House of Commons, and her response was to use the word "cock" repeatedly in a speech about the welfare of poultry.

    In its report, the Daily Mail asterisks out the word "cock", despite the fact that it isn't rude in this context ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2855316/Did-really-far-risque-speech-MPs-Penny-Critics-accuse-Tory-trvialising-Parliament-innuendo-laden-address.html ). Mordaunt says that she said "a particular word, an abbreviation of cockerel" – despite the fact that "cock" isn't an abbreviation of "cockerel"; rather, "cockerel" is a dimunitive of "cock", the older word.

  2. Bruce said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    My Canadian education was sorely lacking – is 'sans-dents' a pun in French?

  3. RP said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    I believe it's a reference to the "sans-culotte" – those without breeches – a term used to describe the lower classes at the time of the French revolution.

  4. David L. Gold said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    @ Mark Liberman. I believe that you have mistranslated the verb in "François Hollande parlerait des 'sans-dents'…."

    One of the uses of the conditional mood in French (as in "parlerait"), especially common in the mass media (where people are careful to avoid any language that might be construed as libelous), is to report a supposed past event without stating that it indeed occurred.

    Thus, the sentence is to be translated as "François Hollande supposedly spoke of…" or "is said to have spoken of" or "reportedly spoke of" and so on.

    Your translation ("François Hollande would use the phrase") implies an event in the past that took place repeatedly. To convey that meaning, French uses the imperfect indicative ("parlait").

    It seems, therefore, that you have mistaken "parlerait" for "parlait." The two are indeed close in form, but they are used differently.

    To report an event supposedly occurring at the present time without asserting that it is indeed occurring, the future indicative is used in French, as in "elle sera à Paris en ce moment" = 'she is said to be in Paris at the moment', 'she is reported to be in Paris at the moment', 'she is reportedly in Paris at the moment', 'she is presumably in Paris at the moment, she is presumed to be in Paris at the moment.'

    Note that when using the conditional mood and the future tense in that way, the presumer may be the author of the utterance or someone else.

    Thus, "elle sera à Paris en ce moment" = both 'she is presumably in Paris at the moment' (the presumer is the author of that sentence) and 'she is presumed to be in Paris at the moment' (the presumer is not the author).

    English uses the future in that way too, but less often than French does: you see a car coming closer and closer; you are not sure who is in it; at some point you have an idea who it is but are not sure; and you say, "That will be my Aunt Susan" — an educated guess but not an assertion.

  5. RP said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    It's also a rhyme: sɑ̃ dɑ̃

  6. Jeff said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

    I'm another victim of a Canadian education (including five years of French). Can somebody render the French abbreviation "SMS" in the Nouvelle Observateur headline?

    [(myl) "Short Message Service", i.e. cell-phone text messages.]

  7. J. F. said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

    The linked Daily Beast article about the love triangle includes the phrase "a council flat in a small-town banlieue". Why the British usage "council flat" instead of "project"? Is Lizzie Crocker, the author of the article, British? Or is this Tina Brown's influence? Or perhaps she feels the the negative stereotypes regarding the inhabitants of French HLM are not quite as bad as those regarding people living in public housing projects in the U.S. And then there's "banlieue" instead of "suburbs". Translation sure is hard.

  8. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    Possibly a US readership would be incredulous that such an altercation with police went down without any shots being fired.

  9. Stuart Brown said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 5:41 am

    Agree with David L. Gold about the French use of the conditional to report facts at arm's length. I'd also note that the last verb in the quote "dit" is in the present, so implies habitual saying (while artfully not totally excluding the possibility of a one-off remark, given the French use of the historic present). So "He…calls them" might be a better rendering.

    As well as the parallel to sans-culottes, another possible explanation of Hollande's quip is that dental work is very expensive in France unless you have private health insurance, as the standard Social Security reimburses a very small proportion of the actual cost. So if you can't afford to have that top-up insurance, you may well neglect your teeth.

  10. richardelguru said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 7:16 am

    @ Ben Hemmens

    Of course they wouldn't—Andrew Mitchell is white!!

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

    @ David L. Gold –

    The will</i construction in English is not generally considered a future tense by grammarians – partly, in fact, on the evidence of examples like the one you give, in which it semantically seems to mark mood rather than tense; though also for syntactic reasons (unlike the French equivalent it is not an inflected form of the verb but a construction, and patterns syntactically with the other modal verbs).

  12. the other Mark P said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 9:04 pm

    And then there's "banlieue" instead of "suburbs". Translation sure is hard.

    The connotations of banlieu are absolutely wrong to translate as "suburb".

    Satellite city is better, as it conveys the self-ruling nature and large size. Versailles is a rich one, and Sarcelles is a poor one, and not only are they not in Paris proper, they aren't even in the inner three other départements.

  13. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 4:36 pm


    That's an experiment I'm not going to try.

RSS feed for comments on this post