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I was recently a week late submitting a report to an administrative department of a French university, and experienced a moment of panic when I saw that the response began "J'accuse …"

But it turns out that in "J'accuse bonne réception ce jour de votre rapport", the French verb accuser can just mean something like "register" or "acknowledge".


  1. Francois Lang said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 9:46 am

    "accuser reception" just means to acknowledge receipt.


    I have no idea how the semantic shift happened from "J'accuse" to acknowledge receipt, but I'm sure someone out there does!

  2. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 9:53 am

    At least in French, Portuguese, and Spanish, the equivalent of 'acknowledge receipt (of…)' includes a verb which in other contexts means 'accuse', as in "accuse someone of a crime":

    accuser réception (de…)
    acusar a recepção (de…)
    acusar recibo (de…)

    But it is easy to understand how the words "j'accuse" caused you to think of Zola's "J'accuse."

  3. Chris Waigl said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    The Robert Dictionnaire historique de la langue française is (unsurprisingly) informative and concise on the topic. Apparently, accusare was already in Latin a word from the field of justice and law, related to the idea of a judicial process (causa). Cf. also "mettre en cause" in modern French ("call into question", and a number of related meanings). If you "accuse" a person, you start a judicial process in which they are blamed for something. If you "accuse" a thing, it signals it in some formal way, or brings it to attention. Apparently Montaigne used it in this sense with things. "Accuser reception" ("acknowledge receipt") has been around since at least the 1600s, which is also when early modern European enlightenment-style bureaucracy expanded. A related sense can be found today in drawing instructions, where "accuser les muscles et les os" means to bring out the muscles and bones under the skin in one's drawing.

  4. Francois Lang said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

    @Suzanne Valkemirer:

    Italian and Romanian also, according to the link I included in my earlier post.

    Italie it Accusare ricevuta Accuser réception
    Roumanie ro A acuza primirea Accuser réception

    Je n'accuse pas!

  5. Sagi said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

    See also the accusative case – referring to someone who is the direct "recipient" of the action…

  6. TR said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

    "Accusative" is a Latin mistranslation of the Greek term aitiatike "(case) of the thing caused", from aitia "cause". But aitia could also mean "accusation", and the Romans (who were very familiar with Greek legal terminology and borrowed some of it themselves) apparently took it in this sense.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    From Elizabeth Dreyer Geay, who has been living in France since 2002, most of the time as a film executive:

    It is the absolute protocol in all administrative exchanges. “I accuse you of having sent me this thing – my accusation hereby makes your sending this a matter of public record – and nobody can now say I did not receive it.” That’s the full meaning to me, as things get lost in the mail or in files in government offices, and each step in the paper trail has to be documented. When you send a check to the tax bureau here you often do so via certified mail – “avec accusé de réception” – the recipient must sign an attached slip which the post office mails back to you. That way they can’t say you didn’t send the check!

  8. efnenu said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

    @TR: http://sprachforschung.org/ickler/index?show=news_inv&id=1594 (German)

    Ickler explains how the Greek case terms each refer to declined names (father/owner – addressee – accused), how 'causativus' would fall out of line in this respect, how it's improbable that Roman grammarians didn't get their basic Greek right, and how the authors that see 'accusative' as a mistranslation all copy from each other.
    Nothing too elaborated, sadly, but it might be worth considering.

  9. George said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 8:49 am

    @Victor Mair

    Elizabeth Dreyer Geay's analysis of the idea expressed by 'accuser réception [de quelque chose]' may be how she managed to get her head around it (and that's fine as far as it goes) but it's not correct. Chris Waigl's comment explains where the expression comes from perfectly well.

  10. Thaomas said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

    Same in Spanish: "Por favor acusar recibo" means please acknowledge receipt.

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