Crisis in the Cloud

The Institut français struggles to come with a French term for "cloud computing"


Pity the French, trying to keep their language pure while the rest of the world intrudes with new terms, especially technical terms, that beg a translation. Witness this account of an unintentionally hilarious session of the French General Commission of Terminology and Neology, whose members were discussing what to do with the new term “cloud computing.” Now if you know any French at all, you’d think this would be an easy one, just call it informatique en nuage, which literally means, well, “cloud computing,” and adjourn for a two-hour French lunch. But no, this seventeen-member group of professors, linguists, scientists, and a former ambassador spent the entire day agonizing over this. Some of their comments:

“What? This means nothing to me. I put a cloud of milk in my tea!”

“A term that includes ‘cloud’ causes laughter or at least a smile.”

There was also much hand wringing over how the expression “in the clouds” means one isn’t paying attention or thinking clearly — exactly as in English, although I doubt that a single American has made that connection with cloud computing — so the alternative Capacité Informatique en Ligne (online computing capacity) was offered up. This had the advantage of offering up the acronym CIEL, which, beautifully, is the French word for sky! Parfait, non?

“Going from ‘cloud’ to ‘sky’ seems a bit far-fetched,” a member objected. ¡Ay, caramba!

Finally, as the sun was setting behind the Louvre across the street, with no viable alternatives, and, I imagine, each of the committee members ready to kill each of the others, they adjourned without a solution. Only several months later (with the speed at which technology moves, they’re lucky that cloud computing hadn’t by then become obsolete) did they agree to fall back to the original and obvious choice: informatique en nuage. Their recommendation was forwarded to the Academy française, that guardian of the French language founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, for its approval.

To be fair, France (and every other non-English-speaking nation) has a problem when it comes to what to do with these new, not just words, but concepts that have come out of America and thus American English. Let’s look at “podcast,” for example. The word first appears in English in 2004, having derived from “iPod broadcast,” and quickly moves across the ocean at Internet speeds. The French, as I see it, have three choices. They can simply adopt the foreign word, but there goes your language purity. Or they can invent a brand new word that sounds more native. For example, the French word for “broadcast” is emission, so an iPod broadcast could’ve been termed a podmission. This actually doesn’t sound bad (although in English it is vaguely suggestive of a certain type of nocturnal emission that teenage boys experience) and in fact the Academy considered it, but ruled it out because iPod is a brand name. Their third option, the one they adopted, was to use their existing vocabulary to come up with the equivalent meaning, diffusion pour baladeur. This is also how they ended up with the tortured and widely ignored accès sans fil à l'Internet instead of “wi-fi.” I wonder if they realized that “wi-fi” doesn’t even make sense in English. The term exists only because someone in a manufacturer’s marketing department, having been given the assignment to come up with a catchy short word or phrase — short enough for a sticker on a computer — to describe a wireless network connection was old enough to remember playing his Charlie Parker albums on his spiffy “hi-fi” (that’s “high fidelity,” for you kids out there) equipment and…voila! A new word was born. But back to “wi-fi,” legislatures can legislate, and committees can — uh, commit? — but in the end, when it comes to language it’s the kids who make the rules. Thus you unlikely to hear someone boasting of their fast accès sans fil à l'Internet connection in France. But their “wee-fee,” as they pronounce it, they love.

— William Alexander


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