Le Mot Juste

One thing most Americans can agree on is that we don’t trust the French very much, or the French language.

Many beginning students of French, in fact, soon transfer into Spanish classes after realizing that French spelling has almost no discernable correlation with French pronunciation. Who would ever guess—without knowing about the famous Pontiac automobilehow to pronounce grand prix? Well, that’s French for you.

Be that as it may, I have to admit that there are a few French figures of speech that seem to express their intended meaning a little better than their English equivalents.

One of these is Le Mot Juste. (Mot is pronounced like Moe.) In English it would be “the right word.” Maybe it’s just snob appeal on my part, but I think it sounds more interesting the way the French put it.

Le Mot Juste or the right word… Either way, more and more people in America don’t seem to care whether they use it or not.

By the “right word,” incidentally, I’m not referring to  correct grammar. [see Good Grammar: Them’s the rules] I mean that many of us speak or write with correct grammar, but without pausing to consider what our words literally mean.

The word “literally” is in itself a good example.

“You’re literally playing with fire,” I heard recently on the radio. What the speaker should have said was just, “You’re playing with fire.” Everybody knows this is just a figure a speech, and understands you aren’t really playing with fire. By saying “You’re literally playing with fire,” however, this misguided individual was actually saying the opposite of what he meant to say.

“On-air celebrities” and media personalities are some of the worst offenders when it comes to not using Le Mot Juste. It’s one thing for an average citizen to make a slip of the tongue in private conversation. It’s downright annoying when newspeople or movie stars, knowing they are under public scrutiny, don’t bother to think before speaking or putting their views in writing.

“Mode of operandus,” for example, is a Latin-sounding phrase I heard Brad Pitt use one night on Larry King’s TV show. Okay, so Brad’s not expected to be a Latin scholar. I’m not either, but I certainly would have looked this up first, before making a fool of myself on nationwide television. [It’s supposed to be modus operandi.]

A few more examples I’ve heard lately from the media’s best and brightest…

They said:                                                                    They should have said

Button down the hatches!                                    Batten down the hatches!

A long road to hoe                                                   A long row to hoe

If that’s what you think,                                     If that’s what you think,
you’ve got another thing                                   you’ve got another
coming.                                                                      think coming.

‘bye for now. We’ll see                                        ‘bye for now.  We won’t
 you tomorrow.                                                      see you tomorrow,
                                                                                       since we’re just
                                                                                      talking heads on TV.

epic center                                                                epicenter

We’re in the thralls of a heat wave.                           We’re in the throes of a heat wave.   


Every stone went unturned.                                 No stone went unturned.





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