Jargon Genesis: “Vis-à-vis”

Ah, the French. How we love to borrow from their language! À la carte, à la mode, à propos, art déco, au gratin, au jus, au naturel, blonde, bon appétit, bon voyage, carte blanche, chic, crème brûlée (yum!), cuisine, déjà vu, du jour, encore, en masse, en route, faux pas, fiancé, genre, hors d’oeuvre, laissez-faire, matinée, oh là là (generally misspelled and mispronounced in English), papier mâché, passé, petite, potpourri, protégé, rendez-vous, risqué, rouge, sans, souvenir, soiree, toilette, et cetera (not French)!

I’m not sure why we choose French words when we have perfectly good English ones. “I would like some burnt cream with coffee, please.”

Why do we get all fancy and say, “I’ll take a crème brûlée and cappuccino, please?”

I suppose it is just a reality of our vernacular, so today let’s discuss another adopted term that is oft used in business discussions, vis-à-vis. To better equip you to use this term, let’s first ensure you have the correct pronunciation, /viz.a′ vi/ (hear it pronounced). Practice out loud a few times, so it rolls off your tongue in a natural manner. This will ensure the optimal effect when you next state, “Let’s consider our new strategy vis-à-vis the old.”

There are three recorded uses of the phrase when it was adopted into English in the mid-18th century. First, vis-à-vis could be a word for a small, horse-drawn carriage for two people sitting facing each other. This makes sense given the literal translation from French, “face to face.”

Second, vis-à-vis could refer to things or people situated opposite to each other. “I met Mr. Weasley, who had a lovely vis-à-vis, Miss Granger, at dinner today.”

Third, it can mean “in relation to;” see the example above. This is the most common use of the term today, and unless you happen to be in the business of two-person, horse-drawn carriages, you will mostly likely use the term in this context. Good luck!

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