Not everyone likes their fries French or french

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 28, 2002

What a surprise! When I wrote last week's column (How do you like your fries: French or french?), I thought of it as a lighthearted contribution to summer reading. Obviously, I hadn't reckoned on just how seriously many of you take this tater topic.

"Imagine, if you can, fish and french fried potatoes!" wrote Calgary coffee companion Jeff Perkins. "They couldn't be wrapped in newspaper. Just wouldn't fit. How smart the English. They're 'chips!'"

Couldn't agree more, said the kindly Curmudgeon of Cochrane, now residing in Victoria where he sips coffee at the local yacht club:

WARREN, YOUR COFFEE-TABLE discussion last week about the "F" word used in connection with sliced potatoes fried in deep fat as to whether or not it should be capitalised can be resolved by "de-nationalising" the description.

Instead, the population of the northern part of this hemisphere should adopt the nomenclature for these delectable, though dangerous, delights that is used by the rest of the English-speaking nations and call them "chips". After all, who ever heard of "fish and french fries"? Just check the shelves in the frozen food section of any grocery store – even in Canada; what one sees are packets of "Fish and Chips" or "English Style Fish and Chips".

Is it not a delicious irony that in Quebec and other parts of the Francophonie, les pommes de terre that have been cut into strips and fried in deep fat are called simply "pommes frites"? So much for French linguistic chauvinism, n'est pas?

One could also be obtuse and adopt the weird spelling of a class of hyphenated names beloved of some of the "equo"-fascists of Britain and Ireland who are addicted to f's. I refer to the "ffrench-Folliots" and the "ffrench-Smiths" etc. These noble breeds were described by the Irish playwright Brendan Behan as "Irish Horse Protestants," and by the less cultured as "a right bunch of effers".

Vivre les ffrench fries! Vivre les ffrench-fries libres!

—Derek Dunwoody, Victoria, B.C.

ON A MORE scientific note, my son James, a Toronto-based editor/writer and inveterate philologist, responded with a rather nice case study in linguistic methodology.

He compared the stress pattern in "french fry" with the stress pattern in the pairs of words in the following list: "French bread," "French door" and "French toast."

"Say the words aloud," he said. Those in the list have two primary accents – "the second word gets as much stress as the first." They are clearly two separate words.

"French fry" is quite another story, he said and proceeded to explain why: "french fry" has only one primary stress. "It's become a compound, even though it's written as two words," and as such, "people pay no attention to capitalization and hardly even think about the 'french' part of the term."

I tested his observation on word stress, and saw immediately that he was right.

When I said aloud "French bread," the stress on the two words was about equal: [FRENCH BREAD]. So too with [FRENCH DOOR] and [FRENCH TOAST] – each member of the word pair enjoyed equal stress.

Not so with "french fry." When I pronounced this aloud, the stress was not [FRENCH FRY], but [FRENCH fry] – the second part had less stress on it than the first.

(Try saying aloud "French bread," "French door" and "French toast" with the same stress pattern as "french fry," and you'll see what James is getting at. We'd normally never pronounce them [FRENCH bread], [FRENCH door] or [FRENCH toast].)

The stress pattern for "french fry," then, suggests strongly that it could just as easily be written as one word, "frenchfry," just as we do for the similarly stressed compound words "housefly" and "necktie." The only explanation for not doing so is convention; it's just the way we write it.

For now, at least. But when the chips are down . . .

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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