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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The dossier on "dossier"

A thick dossier

This week, according to Merriam-Webster dictionaries,
Lookups for 'dossier' spiked after the news that U.S. investigators had confirmed portions of a dossier on Trump's ties to Russia
Why do we call a collection of documents about a person or event this? 

The French dossier comes from the word for "back" (dos); a bundle of documents on a particular subject was called this because it had a label on the back. We borrowed "dossier" in the mid-19th century, although we had the perfectly good "file" already (more about that later). Of course English has never been reluctant to acquire more synonyms for words it already has. 

The early quotation that Merriam-Webster gives is
I may, however, mention from high legal authority, that the President laboured under a mistake when he demanded the displacement or even communication of the “dossiers” (legal papers) of the Boulogne and Strasburg affairs.
Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 11 Jan. 1849
Various criminal cases in French-speaking jurisdictions were reported on in English newspapers, and the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century gave the word a bit of a bump in English as journalists reported on the scandal. Perhaps the fact that French was the language of diplomacy contributed to the word being borrowed in government circles.

DOSSY-ay or DOSSY-ur?

It seems that "dossier" first entered English through print rather than speech, because the OED's entry, written in 1897, gives as its first pronunciation not the French "doe SYAY", but rather the anglicized "DOSSY uh". But, while a very few people still do say this (or its r-ful North American variant, "DOSSY ur"), with English speakers becoming more familiar with French, we have, over time, ended up with a hybrid English/French pronunciation: "DOSSY ay" is now overwhelmingly most common in all varieties of English.  A very small number of anglophones do, however, pronounce this word "DOE see ay".

FILE

Now, what about file? (Thank GOD everyone pronounces it the same!)

In Latin, the word fÄ«lum meant "thread". This came into Old French as fil (pronounced "FEEL"), and it means "thread" to this day in French (as well as "wire" and other extensions of meaning). 

But English went a different way with "fil" after we borrowed it from French in about 1500, using it for a very specific kind of thread: a string or wire on which papers and documents were strung for safekeeping and reference. From there it was just a short step for "file" to refer to the papers themselves, and then to other methods of keeping and organizing them, until in the 21st century our "files" are made of electrons.

A CANADIANISM!

Here in Canada we have our very own extension of the word "file":
  • 4. Cdn issues and responsibilities in a specified area, considered collectively: what progress has the prime minister made on the unity file?
Oddly enough, this is a context where other varieties of the language might use the word ... "dossier"! In fact, I suspect that this is a usage that arose as a loan translation of the French dossier in Canada's bilingual federal public service.

OTHER FILES

The "single file" sense of "file" is also ultimately derived from the same Latin word meaning "thread". The file we use on our fingernails is a different word, dating all the way back to Anglo-Saxon.  

And of course, all of these "files" have, quite naturally, generated verbs. Yes, more of those. No sign of "dossier" being used as a verb yet, but it's a fairly new word in English so it may be only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, please do not consign this blog post to the "circular file" (a term celebrating its 50th birthday this year)!


Want to check out some more French words? Come to Montreal with me in April to see the National Ballet of Ukraine and a fabulous Chagall exhibit. More info here.

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4 comments:

  1. I really hope dossier doesn't get used as a verb but it is probably a vain hope. :-(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. probably someone thought the same about file at some point...

      Delete
  2. I couldn't figure out the pronunciation from your FB query or here. DOSSY at the start doesn't fit my way of saying it -- too much of the Y there. More of a gliding down DOSS-syea. Ah well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. some people do 3 syllables, some do 2. I didn't have enough room to go into all the possible permutations and combinations, and I was really just interested in the vowels.

      Delete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.