In a word: soi-disant

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


English has a complicated relationship with French. Thanks to the Normans, more than half of English words are of French or Latin derivation. French also enjoyed a very long span of prestige; it was commonly spoken at the royal courts of Europe and was the language of international diplomacy until Anglo-American political, military, and economic power gave English greater heft in the twentieth century. 

So it is not surprising that English should have incorporated a large number of words wholesale from French, of which today's word, soi-disant (pronounced SWAH-duh-SAHN) is an apt example. 

It means "self-styled" or "self-appointed," from soi, "oneself," and disant, "saying." And it carries a tinge of hauteur, if not outright scorn. If I were to write, as I often do, about "soi-disant guardians of the purity of English," the word would signal to you my low regard for their abilities. 

We have arrived at a time when using a French term in the place of a perfectly serviceable English one is received as a mark of pretension, so you will need to choose carefully the occasions on which you dismiss someone as soi-disant

Example:  From an article by James Bowman, "Rebels Without a Clue" in the June 2010 issue of the American Spectator, the publication that above all others cited in the Corpus of Contemporary American English favors the use of soi-disant. I quote an entire paragraph so that you may savor the curled-lip tone:

"The youth culture is actually quite old -- more than a century. We missed the 100th anniversary last year of the Futurist Manifesto of the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti which, along with the worship of youth, could be said to have spawned a considerable portion of the modernist movement, the First World War, Communism, Dada, Fascism, and the Jazz Age, not to mention the heirs of all these things in the 1960s who thought they had invented the 'generation gap.' Their soi-disant 'revolution,' however, was turned inward, in the direction of self-liberation. Rebellion was now only the rebellion of self and appetite against society and society's traditional expectations of us."


CORRECTION: The final consonant in soi-disant is not pronounced, as an alert reader has reminded me. 

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