Dentifrice (was: "Commercial" words - was: plural people)

Thu Apr 27 15:23:48 UTC 2006

        I guess I should have included more detail in my message,
especially since I was commenting on a message from a different thread.
In an earlier issue, The New Yorker ran an article about absinthe, the
long-outlawed liqueur that is associated with fin de siecle Parisian
artists.  It then ran a letter in response to the article.  The letter
recounted the writer's experience, in France in years past, of going to
a pharmacist and asking for "dentifrice," which the letter helpfully
translated as "(toothpaste)."  Instead of providing toothpaste, however,
the pharmacist would give a packet of herbs that could be used to make
absinthe.  The letter did not explain how the pharmacist knew to give
the packet of herbs, and not toothpaste.

        Wilson Gray then posted to ADS-L a complaint that "the writer
assumes that _dentifrice_ is a foreign - in this case, French - term
that needs to be translated for the average TNY reader."  Of course,
dentifrice, as used in the letter, is indeed a French word, though there
happens to be an English word with a slightly different pronunciation
but the same spelling and a similar meaning.  In ordinary use, it would
probably be unnecessary to provide a translation for "dentifrice," just
as it would be unnecessary to provide English translations for the
French words "oui," "non," and "table."  In context, however, I suggest
that providing a translation was not inappropriate.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of James Smith
Sent: Thursday, April 27, 2006 10:03 AM
Subject: Re: Dentifrice (was: "Commercial" words - was: plural people)

I've pondered on this a bit, and frankly - I don't understand the
problem; what am I missing here?
(Pate) dentifrice in french = toothpaste or dentifrice in english; why
would anyone be disturbed by this translation?  Was there something more
in the New Yorker story that gave this a twist?  What would absinthe
have to do with teeth, and what on earth is a do-it-yourself absinthe
kit, anyway?  Did the pharmacist just completely misundertstand the

--- "Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM> wrote:

>         And, since we've picked it up in this
> thread:  I'm not so sure
> that I'm disturbed by The New Yorker's translation of "dentifrice" as
> "toothpaste."  The writer was, after all, translating a French word,
> albeit one whose meaning in English is approximately the same as that
> of the English word with the same spelling.  Since the pharmacist
> responded to the request for a dentifrice by providing a sort of
> do-it-yourself absinthe kit, it seems reasonable for the writer to
> clarify that he was, nominally, asking for toothpaste.
> John Baker

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