No Hashtags, Please, We’re French

In recent years, the guardians of the French language have had trouble keeping up with the influx of English-language loanwords from the tech world. Buzzwords like “cloud computing” and services like Twitter and Facebook leave an unmistakable, and unmistakably English, impact on the language.

To protect the French language from these interlopers, the Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie periodically releases approved French equivalents. While they can’t force people on the street to use these terms, they do have the power to mandate their use in official French government documents and correspondence. Last week, the commission announced that the English term “hashtag” is officially on the “do not use” list, to be replaced by the French translation “mot-dièse.”

If you’re not on Twitter, “hashtags” are words in a tweet preceded by a hash (#) sign. They are used to categorize tweets, or sometimes to tack on a little bit of commentary. Either way, when you click on a hashtag you can see a list of other tweets using that hashtag.

The commission’s decision has received a fair amount of ridicule on Twitter, and from native French speakers as well as English speakers. So, it will be interesting to see whether or not the new phrasing actually catches on beyond government documents.

There are a couple of potential obstacles. First of all, many French speakers have already gotten used to calling hashtags “hashtags.” Second, “mot-dièse” literally means “sharp word,” referring to the sharp symbol used in music.

Unfortunately, as the Death and Taxes blog points out, that isn’t an entirely accurate translation:

“However, the sharp symbol (♯) isn’t the same as the hashtag symbol (#), which leans to the right instead of the sharp’s left. And now you know! “

Interestingly, according to Metro, the Office Québécois de la Langue Française had previously proposed a French hashtag alternative that made more sense than its English counterpart:

‘There’s nothing French about the structure or pronunciation of a word like hashtag, which does not spontaneously mean anything to a French speaker,’ said the OQLF spokesman. ‘That’s why we have proposed the term mot-clic, which actually means something in French. After all, what does hashtag actually mean? It’s used to describe a word preceded by a hash sign. This symbol invites the reader to click on the following word to access more information on the topic in question, and the latter is exactly what mot-clic means.”

I wonder if the reaction would have been any less harsh if “mot-clic” had been used instead of mot-dièse?

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