Monday, May 8, 2017

Nay to Née

Né? Not for me!
I tend to be fairly conservative in language, preferring the tried-and-true to the innovative, but there is one point where I have to draw the line. There may have been an era in which the use of the French word née didn’t come off as affected or pretentious. We are no longer in that era.

Worse yet, the only times I ever see it, it’s been misused. There are multiple forms. In French there are times in which you would write not only and née, but also •nés* and nées. It’s just the French word for “born” (that is, the past participle of the verb naître). As a convention in English, it’s acquired the meaning of “born under the name of,” and it’s typically used to indicate that some man is performing under a name other than that with which he was born.

I remember seeing this used some years ago in a newspaper article about a British performer, though I have forgotten whether the performer in question was Adam Ant,[1] David Bowie,[2] or Elton John.[3] I do remember that the newspaper used the feminine form, née, instead of the masculine form, né. Oops.

Slate has taken this one step further into error. In an article on the American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare), Jamelle Bouie writes, “Obamacare (née the Affordable Care Act).” Now wait a minute! Is the Affordable Care Act female? Really? The French word acte is masculine (although the feminine word loi could be used instead). Was the law born with the name the Affordable Care Act, but now it uses “Obamacare”? The text of the law undoubtably is still titled “The Affordable Care Act.” is indefensible here, née doubly so.

Née should only be used when talking about talking about women in a prior era, when in “taking their husband’s name,” women went whole hog, giving us “Mrs William Backhouse Astor Jr.” (née Caroline Schermerhorn). But Mrs. Astor died in 1908. Mrs. Astor would have found shocking the construction “Mrs. Hillary Clinton,” which for Mrs. Astor would have raised the suspicion that a divorced woman was running for president. Twelve years after Mrs. Astor’s death, James M. Cox’s divorce was shocking enough to prevent him from becoming president.

It’s long past time to say adieu to née.

  1. Stage name of Stuart Goddard. (There’s no indication that he’s ever legally changed his name.)  ↩
  2. Stage name of David Jones.
  3. Born Reginald Dwight. Getting knighted conferred a legal name change.  ↩

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