What's Your Take on 'Contretemps'?

Posted: Apr 24, 2006 11:24 AM

Some years ago a friendly butcher spoke accidentally to the essence of the writing art. He was cutting a side of beef into steaks and chops. A curious bystander asked: How do you know how much fat to leave on? (Please stick around. The point is coming.)

Our sagacious butcher replied: You have to leave some fat, but you don't want to leave too much.

All clear? Fat's a judgment call. Every professional writer stands every day over a stack of metaphorical T-bones. What to leave in? What to carve out? Last month a letter came from Derrick Gilliland in Ravenel, S.C. He had been reading the Charleston Post & Courier and was struck by an editorial reference to a "contretemps." He was irked.

"Even if the editor isn't trying to create a self-indulgent, tangential impression, there are different demographics for a daily newspaper and, say, The New Yorker. Most readers of the former likely went to unsophisticated public schools. Not even my public school French teachers uttered 'contretemps' as conversational French.

"So which way is it? Do we want to be understood by the broadest audience, or try to be erudite before a select few? There's a happy medium between dumbing down for the lowest common denominator, and contriving useless elitism."

How do professional writers and editors respond to Reader Gilliland? After 60 years of writing and editing, I still search for a neat and tidy answer. In the first act of Hamlet, that old fraud Polonius provided an answer that works for the greatly gifted and the luckily rich:

... to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Sure, and if amuses thine own self to write in Latin or Greek, write on! For the rest of us, whether we write for a living or for some public purpose, we had better stick to English for our (presumably) English-speaking audience.

But not always. The Charleston News & Courier has a paid circulation of roughly 90,000. Its actual daily readership is probably twice that. Not every person will read every item on every page every day. In some of those households, alas, no one will ever read an editorial at all. Their loss! But let us suppose that last month's "contretemps" editorial attracted a third of the potential households.

Who are these hypothetical readers? A "contretemps" is "an inopportune happening; embarrassing mischance; awkward mishap; an unforeseen event that disrupts the normal course of things." Could every reader in all these households define "contretemps" so precisely? Of course not. But in context, did the overwhelming majority of them instantly grasp the meaning? Of course they did.

Next question: If we suppose that 5 percent of these readers were likely to stumble over "contretemps," should the writer have discarded it and substituted "embarrassing mishap" in its place? Now the sentence would be instantly clear to everybody! Isn't that every writer's goal? To be read? To be understood? We're talking everyday prose, not poetry -- the kind of prose that goes into a sermon, a book review, a corporation's annual report, the minutes of the ladies' sodality.

Writers must write to please their readers. Otherwise, they won't be writing long. But dammit, writers also write to please themselves. If all those puzzled readers don't know "contretemps," let 'em look it up.