Non Anglo English Essay

Point of Departure - Winter 2010

Writing English as a Second Language

Print

By William Zinsser

December 1, 2009


 

 

A talk to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, August 11, 2009

Five years ago one of your deans at the journalism school, Elizabeth Fishman, asked me if I would be interested in tutoring international students who might need some extra help with their writing. She knew I had done a lot of traveling in Asia and Africa and other parts of the world where many of you come from.

I knew I would enjoy that, and I have—I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m the doctor that students get sent to see if they have a writing problem that their professor thinks I can fix. As a bonus, I’ve made many friends—from Uganda, Uzbekhistan, India, Ethiopia, Thailand, Iraq, Nigeria, Poland, China, Colombia and many other countries. Several young Asian women, when they went back home, sent me invitations to their weddings. I never made it to Bhutan or Korea, but I did see the wedding pictures. Such beautiful brides!

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to learn to write comfortably in a second—or third or fourth—language. I don’t think I could do it, and I admire your grace in taking on that difficult task. Much of the anxiety that I see in foreign students could be avoided if certain principles of writing good English—which nobody ever told them—were explained in advance. So I asked if I could talk to all of you during orientation week and tell you some of the things my students have found helpful.

So that’s why we’re here today.


I’ll start with a question: What is good writing?

It depends on what country you’re from. We all know what’s considered “good writing” in our own country. We grow up immersed in the cadences and sentence structure of the language we were born into, so we think, “That’s probably what every country considers good writing; they just use different words.” If only! I once asked a student from Cairo, “What kind of language is Arabic?” I was trying to put myself into her mental process of switching from Arabic to English. She said, “It’s all adjectives.”

Well, of course it’s not all adjectives, but I knew what she meant: it’s decorative, it’s ornate, it’s intentionally pleasing. Another Egyptian student, when I asked him about Arabic, said, “It’s all proverbs. We talk in proverbs. People say things like ‘What you are seeking is also seeking you.’” He also told me that Arabic is full of courtesy and deference, some of which is rooted in fear of the government. “You never know who’s listening,” he said, so it doesn’t hurt to be polite. That’s when I realized that when foreign students come to me with a linguistic problem it may also be a cultural or a political problem.

Now I think it’s lovely that such a decorative language as Arabic exists. I wish I could walk around New York and hear people talking in proverbs. But all those adjectives and all that decoration would be the ruin of any journalist trying to write good English. No proverbs, please.

Spanish also comes with a heavy load of beautiful baggage that will smother any journalist writing in English. The Spanish language is a national treasure, justly prized by Spanish-speaking people. But what makes it a national treasure is its long sentences and melodious long nouns that express a general idea. Those nouns are rich in feeling, but they have no action in them—no people doing something we can picture. My Spanish-speaking students must be given the bad news that those long sentences will have to be cruelly chopped up into short sentences with short nouns and short active verbs that drive the story forward. What’s considered “good writing” in Spanish is not “good writing” in English.

So what is good English—the language we’re here today to wrestle with? It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong. Those are the damaging habits I want to warn you about today.

First, a little history. The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important. It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation.

I’m sure all of you, newly arrived in America, have already been driven crazy trying to figure out the instructions for ordering a cell phone or connecting your computer, or applying for a bank loan or a health insurance policy, and you assume that those of us who were born here can understand this stuff. I assure you that we don’t understand it either. I often receive some totally unintelligible letter from the telephone company or the cable company or the bank. I try to piece it out like a hieroglyphic, and I ask my wife, “Can you make any sense of this?” She says, “I have no idea what it means.”

Those long Latin usages have so infected everyday language in America that you might well think, “If that’s how people write who are running the country, that’s how I’m supposed to write.” It’s not. Let me read you three typical letters I recently received in the mail. (I keep letters like this and save them in a folder that I call “Bullshit File.”)

The first one is from the president of a private club in New York. It says, “Dear member: The board of governors has spent the past year considering proactive efforts that will continue to professionalize the club and to introduce efficiencies that we will be implementing throughout 2009.” That means they’re going to try to make the club run better.

Here’s a letter to alumni from the head of the New England boarding school I attended when I was a boy. “As I walk around the Academy,” she writes, “and see so many gifted students interacting with accomplished, dedicated adults” [that means boys and girls talking to teachers] and consider the opportunities for learning that such interpersonal exchanges will yield…” Interpersonal exchanges! Pure garbage. Her letter is meant to assure us alumni that the school is in good hands. I’m not assured. One thing I know is that she shouldn’t be allowed near the English department, and I’m not sure she should even be running the school. Remember: how you write is how you define yourself to people who meet you only through your writing. If your writing is pretentious, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no choice.

Here’s one more—a letter from the man who used to be my broker; now he’s my investment counsel. He says, “As we previously communicated, we completed a systems conversion in late September. Data conversions involve extra processing and reconciliation steps [translation: it took longer than we thought it would to make our office operate better]. We apologize if you were inconvenienced as we completed the verification process [we hope we’ve got it right now]. “Further enhancements will be introduced in the next calendar quarter” [we’re still working on it]. Notice those horrible long Latin words: communicated, conversion, reconciliation, enhancements, verification. There’s not a living person in any one of them.

Well, I think you get the point about bad nouns. (Don’t worry—in a minute I’ll tell you about good nouns.) I bring this up today because most of you will soon be assigned to a beat in one of New York’s neighborhoods. Our city has been greatly enriched in recent years by immigrants from every corner of the world, but their arrival has also brought a multitude of complex urban problems. You’ll be interviewing the men and women who are trying to solve those problems—school principals, social workers, health-care workers, hospital officials, criminal justice officials, union officials, church officials, police officers, judges, clerks in city and state agencies—and when you ask them a question, they will answer you in nouns: Latin noun clusters that are the working vocabulary of their field. They’ll talk about “facilitation intervention” and “affordable housing” and “minimum-density zoning,” and you will dutifully copy those phrases down and write a sentence that says: “A major immigrant concern is the affordable housing situation.” But I can’t picture the affordable housing situation. Who exactly are those immigrants? Where do they live? What kind of housing is affordable? To whom? As readers, we want to be able to picture specific people like ourselves, in a specific part of the city, doing things we might also do. We want a sentence that says something like “New Dominican families on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx can’t pay the rent that landlords ask.” I can picture that; we’ve all had trouble paying the landlord.


So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road … words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.

What are your best tools? Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor.

Let’s go back to school for a minute and make sure you remember the difference between an active verb and a passive verb. An active verb denotes one specific action: JOHN SAW THE BOYS. The event only happened once, and we always know who did what: it was John who activated the verb SAW. A passive-voice sentence would say: THE BOYS WERE SEEN BY JOHN. It’s longer. It’s weaker: it takes three words (WERE SEEN BY instead of SAW), and it’s not as exact. How often were the boys seen by John? Every day? Once a week? Active verbs give momentum to a sentence and push it forward. If I had put that last sentence in the passive—“momentum is given to a sentence by active verbs and the sentence is pushed forward by them”—there is no momentum, no push.

One of my favorite writers is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote one of the great American books, Walden, in 1854, about the two years he spent living—and thinking—in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s writing moves with simple strength because he uses one active verb after another to push his meaning along. At every point in his sentences you know what you need to know. Here’s a famous sentence from Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Look at all those wonderful short, active verbs: went, wished, front, see, learn, die, discover. We understand exactly what Thoreau is saying. We also know a lot about him—about his curiosity and his vitality. How alive Thoreau is in that sentence! It’s an autobiography in 44 words—39 of which are words of one syllable. Think about that: only five words in that long, elegant sentence have more than one syllable. Short is always better than long.

Now let me turn that sentence into the passive:

A decision was made to go to the woods because of a desire for a deliberate existence and for exposure to only the essential facts of life, and for possible instruction in its educational elements, and because of a concern that at the time of my death the absence of a meaningful prior experience would be apprehended.

All the life has been taken out of the sentence. But what’s the biggest thing I’ve taken out of that sentence? I’ve taken Thoreau out of that sentence. He’s nowhere to be seen. I’ve done it just by turning all the active verbs into passive verbs. Every time I replaced one of Thoreau’s active verbs with a passive verb I also had to add a noun to make the passive verb work. “I went to the woods because” became “A decision was made.” I had to add the noun decision. “To see if I could learn what it had to teach—two terrific verbs, learn and teach; we’ve all learned and we’ve all been taught—became “for possible instruction.” Can you hear how dead those Latin nouns are that end in i-o-n?  Decision. Instruction. They have no people in them doing something.

So fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.


I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.

First, Clarity. If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.

Two: Simplicity. Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. “Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,” a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. “If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.” Stupid like Thoreau, I want to say. Or stupid like E. B. White. Or like the King James Bible. Listen to this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Look at all those wonderful plain nouns: race, battle, bread, riches, favor, time, chance.]

Or stupid like Abraham Lincoln, whom I consider our greatest American writer. Here’s Lincoln addressing the nation in his Second Inaugural Address as president, in 1865, at the end of the long, terrible, exhausting Civil War:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right [eleven straight one-syllable words], let us strive on [active verb] to finish the work we are in, to bind up [active verb] the nation’s wounds, to care [active verb] for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan [specific nouns],—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Here’s another American President, Barack Obama, also a wonderful writer, who modeled his own style on Lincoln’s. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father. a beautifully written book, Obama recalls how, as a boy,

At night, lying in bed, I would let the slogans drift away, to be replaced with a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known.

They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month. . . . A pair of college students . . . placing their orders at a lunch counter teetering on the edge of riot. . . . A county jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.

Such images became a form of prayer for me [beautiful phrase], bolstering my spirits, channeling my emotions in a way that words never could. They told me [active verb] . . . that I wasn’t alone in my particular struggles, and that communities . . . had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens [specific detail]. They expanded or contracted [active verbs] with the dreams of men. . . . In the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs [specific detail], I saw [active verb] the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised [simple nouns: place, house]. . . . Because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself—I believed [active verb] that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.

So remember: Simple is good. Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.

Principle number 3. Brevity. Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.

Which brings me to my fourth principle: Humanity. Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.

There are many modern journalists I admire for their strong, simple style, whom I could recommend to you as models. Two who come to mind are Gay Talese and Joan Didion. Here’s a passage by Talese, from his book of collected magazine pieces, The Gay Talese Reader, about the great Yankee baseball star, Joe DiMaggio, who at one point was married to Marilyn Monroe:

Joe DiMaggio lives with his widowed sister, Marie, in a tan stone house on a quiet residential street near Fisherman’s Wharf. He bought the house almost thirty years ago for his parents, and after their death he lived there with Marilyn Monroe. . . . There are some baseball trophies and plaques in a small room off DiMaggio’s bedroom, and on his dresser are photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and in the living room downstairs is a small painting of her that DiMaggio likes very much [how nice that sentence is—how simple and direct]: It reveals only her face and shoulders, and she is wearing a very wide-brimmed sun hat, and there is a soft sweet smile on her lips, an innocent curiosity about her that is the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen by others.
[Notice all those one-syllable words: “the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen.” The sentence is absolutely clean—there’s not one word in it that’s not necessary and not one extra word. Get rid of every element in your writing that’s not doing useful work. It’s all clutter.]

And here’s Joan Didion, who grew up in California and wrote brilliant magazine pieces about its trashy lifestyle in the 1960s. No anthropologist caught it better. This passage is from her collection of early magazine pieces, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

There are always little girls around rock groups—the same little girls who used to hang around saxophone players, girls who lived on the celebrity and power and sex a band projects when it plays—and there are three of them out here this afternoon in Sausalito where the Grateful Dead rehearse. They are all pretty and two of them still have baby fat and one of them dances by herself with her eyes closed [perfect simple image]. . . .

Somebody said that if I was going to meet some runaways I better pick up some hamburgers and Cokes on the way, so I did, and we are eating them in the Park together, me, Debbie who is fifteen, and Jeff who is sixteen. Debbie and Jeff ran away twelve days ago, walked out of school with $100 between them [active verbs: ran away, walked out of school]. . . .

Debbie is buffing her fingernails with the belt to her suède jacket. She is annoyed because she chipped a nail and because I do not have any polish remover in the car. I promise to get her to a friend’s apartment so that she can redo her manicure, but something has been bothering me and as I fiddle with the ignition I finally ask it. I ask them to think back to when they were children, to tell me what they had wanted to be when they were grown up, how they had seen the future then.

Jeff throws a Coca-Cola bottle out the car window. “I can’t remember I ever thought about it,” he says.

“I remember I wanted to be a veterinarian once,” Debbie says. “But now I’m more or less working in the vein of being an artist or a model or a cosmetologist. Or something.”

Here’s the first paragraph of an article of mine that originally ran in The New Yorker. (It’s now in my book Mitchell & Ruff.)

Jazz came to China for the first time on the afternoon of June 2, 1981, when the American bassist and French-horn player Willie Ruff introduced himself and his partner, the pianist Dwike Mitchell, to several hundred students and professors who were crowded into a large room at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The students and the professors were all expectant, without quite knowing what to expect. They only knew that they were about to hear the first American jazz concert ever presented to the Chinese. Probably they were not surprised to find that the two musicians were black, though black Americans are a rarity in the People’s Republic. What they undoubtedly didn’t expect was that Ruff would talk to them in Chinese, and when he began they murmured with delight.

Five plain declarative sentences that get the story started at full speed—WHAP! You’re right in that room at the Shanghai Conservatory on that June afternoon in 1981.

I’ve given you these examples because writing is learned by imitation. We all need models. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model. Make a point of reading writers who are doing the kind of writing you want to do. (Many of them write for The New Yorker.) Study their articles clinically. Try to figure out how they put their words and sentences together. That’s how I learned to write, not from a writing course.


Two final thoughts. Some of you, hearing me talk to you so urgently about the need to write plain English, perhaps found yourself thinking: “That’s so yesterday. Journalism has gone digital, and I’ve come to Columbia to learn the new electronic media. I no longer need to write well.” I think you need to write even more clearly and simply for the new media than for the old media. You’ll be making and editing videos and photographs and audio recordings to accompany your articles. Somebody—that’s you—will still have to write all those video scripts and audio scripts, and your writing will need to be lean and tight and coherent: plain nouns and verbs pushing your story forward so that the rest of us always know what’s happening. This principle applies—and will apply—to every digital format; nobody wants to consult a Web site that isn’t instantly clear. Clarity, brevity, and sequential order will be crucial to your success.

I emphasize this because the biggest problem that paralyzes students is not how to write; it’s how to organize what they are writing. They go out on a story, and they gather a million notes and a million quotes, and when they come back they have no idea what the story is about—what is its proper narrative shape? Their first paragraph contains facts that should be on page five; facts are on page five that should be in the first paragraph. The stories exist nowhere in time or space; the people could be in Brooklyn or Bogotá.

The epidemic I’m most worried about isn’t swine flu. It’s the death of logical thinking. The cause, I assume, is that most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone. But writing is linear and sequential; Sentence B must follow Sentence A, and Sentence C must follow Sentence B, and eventually you get to Sentence Z. The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking. You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: What does the reader need to know next?”

One maxim that my students find helpful is: One thought per sentence. Readers only process one thought at a time. So give them time to digest the first set of facts you want them to know. Then give them the next piece of information they need to know, which further explains the first fact. Be grateful for the period. Writing is so hard that all of us, once launched, tend to ramble. Instead of a period we use a comma, followed by a transitional word (and, while), and soon we have strayed into a wilderness that seems to have no road back out. Let the humble period be your savior. There’s no sentence too short to be acceptable in the eyes of God.

As you start your journey here at Columbia this week, you may tell yourself that you’re doing “communications,” or “new media,” or “digital media” or some other fashionable new form. But ultimately you’re in the storytelling business. We all are. It’s the oldest of narrative forms, going back to the caveman and the crib, endlessly riveting. What happened? Then what happened? Please remember, in moments of despair, whatever journalistic assignment you’ve been given, all you have to do is tell a story, using the simple tools of the English language and never losing your own humanity.

Repeat after me:
Short is better than long.
Simple is good. (Louder)
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence.

Good luck to you all.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


In the English-speaking world, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ usually refers to a specific period in medieval history. Occasionally, a residual contemporary usage creeps back into general parlance – such as the common expression ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’, used to describe a certain type of American East Coast elite – but this is unusual. Few English speakers today would describe themselves as Anglo-Saxons. It sounds too archaic and too awkward for the modern multi-cultural societies we live in.

It is quite the opposite in France, however. The very same term, usually deployed as an adjective, has passed into everyday language at all levels of society. The French breezily refer to les Anglo-Saxons when talking about the British, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians or some mix of all four; they are more than happy to engage in vigorous arguments about the so-called modèle anglo-saxon, which has become a catch-all term to describe a variety of cultural, social and economic policies developed in the English-speaking world; and they are quite comfortable drawing stark contrasts between une culture anglo-saxonne and a wide range of countercultures. Even politicians and media pundits do not hesitate to describe a ‘model’, an ‘approach’ or an ‘idea’ as Anglo-Saxon – and they can be confident that the vast majority of French people will know what they mean.

All of this can sound mildly unsettling to the untrained ear. For a start, there are the troubling racial and ethnic overtones of the term Anglo-Saxon – which, as we will see, are a vital part of the word’s history through the 19th and 20th century. Then there is the simple fact that the starkly different cultures included under the umbrella French term of Anglo-Saxon do not consider themselves as mutually compatible. The British and Americans have not seen themselves within the same broad cultural sphere for several centuries, and the unravelling of the Commonwealth in the 1960s and ’70s has severed the privileged connection that Canadians and Australians had with the British ‘motherland’. More than ever in the 21st century, the French term Anglo-Saxon seems ill-suited to describe the peoples and places it purports to describe.

Yet the use of the term in France has increased exponentially in the past few decades. Never has the term Anglo-Saxon, either as a noun or as an adjective, been so widespread. This is visible in a variety of metrics and big data available to the contemporary historian. At the broadest level, we can use Google’s N-Gram Viewer to track the usage of the term from 1800 to 2008. The results show a consistent increase in the instances of the term over the past two centuries. This is corroborated by a wide variety of other sources, including the Frantext database of literary texts in French, and the text-searchable databases of some of France’s leading publications (such as Le Monde, L’Obs and Esprit).

Of course, these databases do not include non-written sources. The most frequent use of the term Anglo-Saxon in France is on the radio or television. Whereas publications with stricter editorial policies will weed out sloppy uses of the term, talkshow hosts and commentators will readily pepper their interventions with references to le capitalisme anglo-saxon or le monde anglo-saxon. And it goes without saying that any English-speaking foreigner who works in France is bound to be told at some point that he or she is sounding distinctly Anglo-Saxon.  

Subscribe to Aeon’s Newsletter

So what explains the tenacity of the term Anglo-Saxon in France? And why have the French continued to use it when few in the English-speaking world do? The answer to these questions lies in the complex history of the term, which has developed its own specifically French meanings as it has travelled through time from the mid-19th century to the present day. Crucially, Anglo-Saxon has become closely tied to ideas of French national identity. To put it simply: when the French refer to ‘the Anglo-Saxon’ or use the term as an adjective, they are usually talking about themselves. The Anglo-Saxon is a mirror on Frenchness; it is France’s alter-ego and often its most feared enemy.

Even a cursory glance at the Google N-Gram graph above demonstrates how closely the fortunes of the term have been related to key moments of national questioning in France. The four peaks on the graph – in the late 1860s and early 1870s, around 1900, in the mid-1920s, and at the end of the Second World War – coincided with moments of profound rupture and transformation. The fact that the term has continued to be used into the 2000s suggests that we are perhaps in another one of those moments now, as the French try to work out how much Anglo-Saxon culture they should adopt and how much they should resist.

Still, it is worth going back to the origins of the term in the mid-19th century to see when and how it took on the meanings that it did. Until around 1850, there is little evidence that the term Anglo-Saxon was used in France to refer to anything other than the early medieval period. It was only in the 1860s that a new meaning began to appear in the wake of Napoleon III’s abortive attempts to extend the French empire into Latin America. In learned publications such as the Revue des races latines, founded in 1857, ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was juxtaposed with ‘Latinity’ in an attempt to place France at the heart of a global Latin world that stretched from South America and the Caribbean to Madrid and Paris. This global context laid the foundations for the elision between Britain and the United States that would become so central to the notion of the Anglo-Saxon in later years.

Over time, the term started to be used beyond the limited confines of French imperialist elite. A key indicator of its ubiquity was its inclusion in the revised edition of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française (1877). In addition to its historical definitions as they related to medieval Anglo-Saxon history and language, Littré’s Dictionnaire indicated that ‘When we speak of the race to which the Americans of the United States and the British belong, we often say that they are “Anglo-Saxons”.’ By the late 1870s, the Anglo-Saxon had developed into a well-articulated transnational and ethno-racial stereotype.

That the term should have emerged in France in the 1870s is hardly a coincidence. This was a period of intense soul-searching for the French in the wake of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the violence of the Paris Commune. One of the most common strategies among the reformist and liberal elites of this period was to search beyond France for ideas about how the country could regenerate itself. For this, Britain was an obvious place to look. Whereas France was struggling with civil war and defeat, Britain seemed to be a triumphant imperial power, whose influence stretched across the globe and whose economy dominated Europe.

This vision of Britain – and, by extension, the Anglo-Saxon – was crystallised in one of the most vibrant public debates in France at the very end of the 19th century. The short book À quoi tient la superiorité des Anglo-Saxons? (1897) by the intellectual Edmond Demolins used a mix of rather alarming statistics, perfunctory observation, and racial typologies to argue that the Anglo-Saxon race was particularly well-suited to the modern world. Not only was it on the way to imperial dominance – a point made abundantly clear by the fact that many editions carried a map on the first page designed to show the Anglo-Saxons’ global sphere of influence – but it was also highly effective at promoting economic growth.

This conflation of the UK and the US created a powerful myth of expansion, driven by colonialism and capitalism

For Demolins, this innate predilection for capitalism was the result of the Anglo-Saxons’ ‘particularist’ social structure. This had its roots in the historical dominance of the Anglo-Saxons over the Celts and was expressed in a close-knit family unit. The result was an ethnic group unusually well-adapted to economic and social modernity. It was not a political system that made the Anglo-Saxon distinctive; it was innate psychological and racial characteristics. In many ways, this argument was a polemical reworking of a long-standing view of Britain as a land of individualism using the language of historical essentialism. But Demolins’s extended eulogy of the Anglo-Saxon school system – based on visits to the rather unconventional and recently founded Bedales and Abbotsholme private schools – demonstrated that educational institutions and pedagogical philosophies had also played an essential role. Anglo-Saxon education, it seemed, embodied all the finest traits of the Anglo-Saxon race.

Demolins’s pamphlet was enormously successful. It went through many printings and was translated into English, German, Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Polish and Arabic. It provoked vigorous responses in France and was widely read among the elite. Even for those who disagreed with its conclusions, it provided a compelling explanation for Anglo-Saxon dominance, particularly given that it was published in the year of the Fashoda Incident, which saw Britain and France engaged in a very public colonial confrontation in Africa that ended with Britain comfortably imposing itself.

Quite apart from its spectacular success, Demolins’s essay made clear that a new idea of the Anglo-Saxon had taken shape in France. For a start, the UK and the US were becoming more closely associated, while Germany was becoming increasingly detached from the Anglo-Saxon axis. Where a great deal of mid-19th-century history links the German ‘Saxon’ peoples and the British Isles, by the time Demolins wrote his pamphlet, the Germans were receiving their own, distinct analysis. Indeed, significant portions of his text were devoted to outlining the differences between the educational system and public life of the Anglo-Saxon and the German.

This conflation of the UK and the US reinforced not just a sense of Anglo-Saxon difference, but a pronounced sense of Anglo-Saxon ascendancy. It created a powerful myth of expansion, driven by colonialism and capitalism. In this respect, it is notable that what was perceived as the US’ first ‘real’ colonial intervention – in the Spanish-American War of 1898 – coincided with the publication of Demolins’s book. As has been the case ever since, the French both feared and admired the Anglo-Saxon at the turn of the 19th-century – and they used it as a vehicle for discussing their own national anxieties.

The two most significant peaks in the Google N-Gram graph in the 20th century are in the 1920s and at the end of the Second World War. This makes good sense since, at these two moments, the Anglo-American world became the focus of intense popular interest in France. In this period, Demolins’s ethno-racial typology fused with the literary imagination of French authors to elevate the figure of the Anglo-Saxon in French culture: whether in the form of an individual with specific characteristics or a master race intent on global domination, the Anglo-Saxon seemed omnipresent. And, as the world collapsed into conflict through the 1930s and ’40s, the realities of imperial competition and geopolitical strategy served only to reinforce the sense that the age of the Anglo-Saxon had well and truly taken hold.

One of the key vehicles for notions of the Anglo-Saxon was literature. From the 1870s onwards, there were innumerable references to the Anglo-Saxon in canonical and widely read texts. Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), frequently wrote that hardy ruggedness was a unique characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon man. Similarly, the novelists Paul Bourget and Georges Bernanos painted the picture of the Anglo-Saxon as distinctively disciplined, honest and straight-talking. Such an image conformed perfectly to the stereotype of the imperial man: implacable in the face of exotic illnesses and readily able to adapt to difficult climates and unexpected challenges. The first decades of the 20th century were the height of imperial expansion, and the French elites were trying to figure out what made the British so successful at the empire game. It helped to imagine that a combination of upbringing and education – neither of which were available to the French – were the key ingredients.

The symbolism of the D-Day landings only confirmed the Anglo-Saxon world intended to divide up the globe by itself

This desire to emulate was tempered by the realisation that the Anglo-Saxon was inherently dangerous. In the years following the end of the First World War, the Right-wing political thinker Charles Maurras worried that the Anglo-Saxon was one of the races that was coming to dominate the globe and would leave the Latins far behind. This fear of civilisational ‘decadence’ and ‘decline’ was heavily influenced by important developments in French Catholicism. As well as being an open imperialist threat, there was a growing sense in these circles that the American in particular, and the Anglo-Saxon in general, was the avatar of an increasingly individualistic and hyper-competitive capitalism. Catholic thinkers in France feared that the fabric of society was unravelling in the interwar years, particularly in the light of the Great Depression. Inevitably, the idea of the Anglo-Saxon proved a useful expression for this critique. To emphasise the autonomy, individualism and work ethic of the Anglo-Saxons was simultaneously to warn the French of the dangers of inviting the Anglo-Saxon spirit into France.

The plethora of references to the Anglo-Saxon at the end of the Second World War have an altogether more straightforward explanation. With the US’ entry into the war in 1941, the British Empire in all its forms was now united in its struggle against fascism. And, with France defeated and humiliated in 1940, it seemed that yet again the Anglo-Saxons were forging ahead. The symbolism of the D-Day landings – when Allied troops made northern France the catalyst for the reconquest of western Europe – and the fact that Charles de Gaulle was left out of the Yalta conference in February 1945 only confirmed what the French had long believed: that the Anglo-Saxon world, in collaboration with the Soviet Union, was intending to divide up the globe by itself. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a deluge of articles and essays about a renewed Anglo-Saxon threat in the mid- to late-1940s – a spike that is clearly represented in Google’s database. Just as in the 1860s and in the late 1890s, the use of the term Anglo-Saxon was intertwined with global conflict.

How, then, to explain the more recent rise in usage? Since the violent unravelling of the French Empire in the 1950s and ’60s, France has not been engaged in a major armed conflict, nor has it fought against UK or US armies. Moreover, the racialised model that underpinned the origins of the idea of the Anglo-Saxon in France has fallen into disrepute. Where before the most common adjectival use of Anglo-Saxon in French was in the phrase la race anglo-saxonne, such usages have become taboo since the 1970s. Today, we readily talk about national groups (‘British’, ‘French’) or regional entities (‘Europeans’, ‘South Asians’), but we would hesitate to contrast, as Maurras did in the 1910s, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, the ‘Slavs’ and the ‘yellow races’.

So why do the French continue to use such a loaded term? The answer lies in its transformed meaning. Since the 1970s, its racial connotations have been buried, to be replaced by broader social, cultural and economic meanings. Two of these stand out: its use to describe the economic system of late capitalism and its importance in debates surrounding multiculturalism. There is still, obviously, a competitive element to the term. It still conjures up older, quasi-military connotations of the Anglo-Saxon, for example when de Gaulle used it in the 1960s to describe Anglo-American nuclear cooperation, and when contemporary European negotiators use it to describe British intransigence in the face of the European Union. But the term is now much more commonly applied to an amorphous sense of difference between France and the English-speaking world.

The resurgence of the term Anglo-Saxon in relation to late capitalism can be easily tracked in a variety of French publications. From the early 1990s onwards, journalists and editors begin to attach the adjective Anglo-Saxon to the words capitalisme (capitalism) and marché (market). A search in the archives of the staunchly Left-wing Le Monde diplomatique since 1978 turns up references to the ‘monetarist myopia that dominates the Anglo-Saxon world’ (in 1981); the ‘attempts on the part of Anglo-Saxon capitalism to achieve global hegemony’ (in 1982); and the ‘Anglo-Saxon capitalist model that is the privileged choice of multinationals’ (in 1992). These are complemented by frequent references to ‘Anglo-Saxon liberalism’, which was usually seen to be a dangerous affront to a French ‘social model’. As the 1990s wore on, this language became increasingly alarmist: commentators warned of the hegemony of an ‘Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism’ or a predatory ‘Anglo-Saxon capitalism’, particularly in the wake of the public-sector strikes of 1995. Articles railed against the decision of the French government to fall in line with ‘the Anglo-Saxon “model”… the terrible consequences of which are now plain’ (in 1997).

France’s attitude towards its ethnic minorities was contrasted with a corrosive Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism

The association between the Anglo-Saxon and capitalism was cemented not only in the pages of Left-wing magazines. At the time of the 2005 referendum, which saw the French reject a new constitutional settlement for Europe, the Anglo-Saxon also featured prominently in public debate. Already before the referendum, the Gaullist president Jacques Chirac sought to reassure voters that ‘a laissez-faire solution, in other words, a solution leading to a Europe pushed forward by an ultraliberal, Anglo-Saxon and Atlanticist tendency… is not what we want’. And, shortly after the referendum, the first line of a front-page editorial in the daily newspaper Le Monde placed the fear of the Anglo-Saxon at the heart of the campaign. As the editors put it: ‘The depth of the No vote … can be explained largely by a refusal of the “Anglo-Saxon model”.’ By the first decade of the 21st century, the Anglo-Saxon had become more than a rhetorical device; it was a political battleground. To take a stand for or against the Anglo-Saxon ‘way’ was to take sides in a pressing debate about the ethics of economic development.

The other area in which the term Anglo-Saxon became widely used was in relation to multiculturalism. Over the course of the 1980s, the French political and intellectual elites began to advocate for a more robust model of integration and assimilation directed towards the country’s ethnic minorities. This meant reviving the history of French republicanism and pushing for a much stronger interpretation of French secularism (laïcité), especially in relation to France’s Muslim community. This was not without problems. France’s ethnic minorities mostly reacted with dismay at this new attempt to make them ‘integrate’ more effectively into society, and the French state’s heavy-handed approach to issues such as the Islamic headscarf drew criticisms from outside observers.

One of the consequences of this supposed ‘clash’ between a French model of integration and a ‘flexible’ Anglo-American multiculturalism was to revive the notion of the Anglo-Saxon and extend it into new debates. Just as the ‘French social model’ was pitted against ‘Anglo-Saxon capitalism’, so too France’s attitude towards its ethnic minorities was contrasted with a corrosive Anglo-Saxon ‘communitarianism’. The latter was said to encourage individualism, community conflict, and a withdrawal into specific ethnic or racial identities. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, public intellectuals and politicians denounced the onward march of an Anglo-Saxon approach to the management of social and cultural difference, against which France’s model of integration was the only bulwark. In an eerie echo of the early 20th century, when French intellectuals imagined that their ‘civilisation’ was under threat from Anglo-Saxon imperialism and capitalism, a new generation of intellectuals worried that their society would be torn apart by the pernicious creep of Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism.

French use of the term Anglo-Saxon shows no sign of abating. The Google N-Gram graph ends in 2008 with a marked dip, but this was the year of the global financial crisis. Since then, Anglo-Saxon capitalism has come under scrutiny like never before. And, of course, the growth in Islamic terrorism in Europe has ensured that questions of integration, immigration and security remain at the top of the agenda. In the recent presidential election campaign, the leader of the far-Right Front National claimed that 2016 was the year in which the Anglo-Saxon world ‘woke up’ – a reference to Donald Trump and Brexit – while Emmanuel Macron was universally seen in the French media as an avatar of the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ (for better or for worse, depending on the political opinion of the writer).

In these interminable debates, the realities on the ground are largely irrelevant. It does not matter that the US and the UK differ sharply in almost every way, not to mention the various other countries that sometimes come under the umbrella term of Anglo-Saxon. Nor does it matter that the clash between Anglo-Saxon and French ‘models’ rarely reflects complex sociological realities. Rather, the Anglo-Saxon in France is a placeholder, a mirror, an echo, a metaphor.

All of this will be familiar to students and scholars of nationalism. Cultural stereotypes are a powerful – and underestimated – tool in the way we construct the world around us. When the British nonchalantly refer to ‘the Continent’ or Americans talk about ‘Europe’, they are doing exactly what the French have done with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’. At times, English speakers can even fall into the same trap as their French counterparts when they lazily describe an idea or a way of thinking as ‘Anglo-American’ or ‘Atlantic’.

But, if the British and Americans continue to draw on a shared mythology of the Anglo-Saxon, they do not do so with as much zeal as the French. Today, French intellectuals, pundits, middle-managers, academics and workers happily use the term in much the same way as their late 19th-century cousins. Times have changed and few of these people would acknowledge its obviously racial origins, but this has not stopped the Anglo-Saxon from becoming a looming presence in French society. Perhaps we should just recognise that the concept of the Anglo-Saxon has been almost as resilient and adaptable as the Anglo-Saxons themselves?

Syndicate this Essay

HistoryPolitics & GovernmentCosmopolitanismAll topics →

Emile Chabal

is a chancellor’s fellow in history and the director of the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh.

aeon.co

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *