Farouche, etc.

It has been the season of writing pupils’ reports, with nowadays the pressure to be fulsome, positive, even anodyne, in in one’s comments. It is not like earlier years, when one housemaster gave, as an end-of-year report, ‘He eats and cheats.’ Nowadays you couldn’t get away with a report as brief as that.

Teaching at a city school in those days, I had a Head of Department who pursued the mot juste with almost Flaubertian dedication. On one occasion he used the word farouche on a pupil’s report, and this exactly described the boy’s manner in class.

Burchfield, in the 3rd Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

farouche. The English word, meaning ‘sullen-mannered from shyness’ is an 18c. loanword from French. The French word is an altered form of of faroche… from medL forasticus, from L foras ‘out of doors.’

The word describes the manner of someone who does not feel at home in company—feels like an outsider—, with a resulting awkwardness that can be misunderstood and even construed as hostility.

In the same group of students, he had used another word from French: persiflage, which seemed just the right word for that gentle teasing that is not only acceptable between teacher and pupil but can be pleasingly facilitating: it reassures both parties and makes them comfortable.

Here is something capable of graduations: persiflage, which he used with approval, is gauged to keep the right tone and to be always comme il fautbadinage would be less acceptable; banter would be nearly intolerable; and as for raillery—that is capable of wrecking relationships.

Why are the French so good at words about human behaviour;? Perhaps because observing it is part of their culture. It is mentioned in one of Charles Trenet’s most popular songs, De la fenêtre d’en haut:

Pour observer la vië
Et ses foliës
C’est très intéressant
De voir les passants.

For this, Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais (1778) repay reading (recommended).