Aren’t false anglicisms a real oddity? Last night, I was explaining to a friend that my greatest ambition in life is to have a games room in my home with a pool table and a baby-foot. “A what?” he said. I always forget that despite its comforting English allure, it’s one of those treacherous words, a strange hybrid, an English word created by non-English speakers.
I suppose since an English word, football, normally shortened to foot in French, was already in use, it made sense to add baby to describe what is called in English table football. Why didn’t they come up with foot de table? My theory is that the succession of

[t], a voiceless dental stop, and of [d], a voiced dental stop, doesn’t roll easily off the tongue, whereas [babifut] is very pleasing to a French-speaking ear.
Many thanks to Caroline who directed me to this very interesting article on the origins of baby-foot/table football/fussball etc.
By | 2016-10-18T15:52:18+00:00 January 23rd, 2004|Words|3 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Caroline January 23, 2004 at 9:48 pm

    You’ll think Americans are crazy, but we call it a “foosball” (not sure about the spelling) table. I haven’t the slightest clue why we call it by that name.

  2. colin January 25, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    Phonology explains all! 🙂 Just wanted to say I am enjoying having your blog as a regular read, and thanks for reminding me that I have an account at Translators Café and never use it!

  3. David Gjerdrum January 28, 2004 at 6:36 am

    Baby-foot: I’ve some comments to offer on your question.
    Preliminary, however, is my own question about the language background of the friend you mention — from your description, it is not clear whether that person is a native speaker of English, French or some other language.
    More to the point, it is not clear whether you were striving to coin “baby-foot”
    (i) as a new term for English speakers, or
    (ii) as a pseudo-borrowing for French speakers.
    From the context, I’m inclined to infer (ii); that guess informs what follows:
    To keep the playing field level, somewhat like Caroline, my native language competence centers on a variant often called “American English,” though I can offer a speculation on her comment about the spelling of ‘foosball’ here (since it also seems to be a brand name, she may have the correct spelling):
    At the risk of ascribing more language education to this population than is customary, from my own informant interviews on the subject, I think (based on informant citations) a lot of Americans, independent of brand name, deconstruct the term as ‘füs’ + ‘bol’ — either Germanic or “FIFA world language” for the table-top version of what is here called “soccer.” I suspect the product manufacturer has done a thorough study of this usage.
    Anticipating the discussion below, to my ear, the main vowel of ‘foosball’ is longer and has a more tense quality in current American use, and often with contrastive stress when in apposition to the term used for the field game popular at Super Bowl time. Since I’ve also heard foosball referred to periphrastically as “a kind of table hockey,” it’s hard to guess whether there will be a surviving generic term for this kind of device, and if so, what its form will be.
    Before moving in detail to the topic at hand, it’s also fair to mention my own biases. Since the other languages (French, Mandarin, German, Spanish and some Japanese) I do use were all acquired after infancy (and on into adulthood), I can’t claim native speaker intuitions about grammar, and in particular defer to your fundamental understanding of how langue relates to parole in French.
    Here then, are my comments on the lexical status of ‘*baby-foot’ in English (or as a pseudo-borrowing for French):
    Word formation.
    Comments on the (varied) processes by which new words are formed within a speech community.
    Firstly, the fact that the notion of ‘word’ itself is culture-dependent needs some attention: that is, the utility of the term can itself be constrained by language type — e.g. Marc Okrand (best know as the inventor of Klingon), wrote an article in the late 1970s entitled “Nootka has no nouns or verbs.”
    Even for European languages, where a primacy of word is well accepted (and enduring conventions exist associating languages with particular nations), it is understood that there can and will be variance in the availability, sound values and semantics of particular word forms by language (an issue doubtless central to translation as you practice it), within a single language across time (the focus of historical analysis), and of course among different speech communities within a language at a given moment in time (dialect study).
    This is to suggest that a language professional versed in the translation arts, in examining diachronic and synchronic variances, also has access to the processes underlying word formation in a given language.
    For English, the most prominent diachronic change in the written record is the Great English Vowel Shift (GEVS), often attributed to “continentalization,” or Renaissance fashion. More specifically, the adoption of Greek (antepenultimate) stress placement in lieu of the word-final stress pattern common for Germanic is said to have triggered the GEVS as a meaning-preserving sound change response to the collapsing case structure – in spoken English, meaningful grammatical distinctions such as case had to be made in other ways, since the reduced vowel quality of unstressed final syllables was presumably insufficient – these changes included transformation of the vowel system to include a different range of diphthongs, greater use of prepositions, and more strict word order.
    Historic examples in the development of English show in a macro view phonologic change conditioning the shape of new morphology, yet the same examples also show grammatical meaning at least among the constraints governing that process. In the present example, note that the effects of the GEVS did not undo the earlier effects of Grimm’s Law (a shift in markedness – e.g. ‘foot’ and ‘pied’ as cognate forms, with consonants in the former reflecting reduction from voiced to voiceless stops) on the underlying Germanic lexicon of English. Modern English exemplifies a Germanic language spoken with a Romance accent.
    A corresponding micro perspective on word formation is available in a dialectology framework, where the scope and boundaries of contemporary language change can be evaluated, and patterns of language use characterized, in terms of geographic distribution (isoglosses), speaker demographics (age, social stratum), etc., all in terms more or less independent of linguistic theory – economics, sociology, and the like.
    In this sense, the two perspectives are mutually verifying: the macro view from historic linguistics can provide certain principles, which can serve as yardsticks for evaluating language change, and the micro view of dialectology can in turn be used to test, and as needed refine, those principles directly in the real world of today’s language use.
    I would end this excursion with a couple of brief points of opinion:
    [1] What glues the two perspectives together is a process I call the “grandfather restriction” (as opposed to the mother tongue, below) – since speech acts ultimately support a communicative function, to the extent a culture requires intergenerational communications per se, that requirement constrains the pace of language change: the new generation(s) need retain at least one mode of speaking for use in addressing the elders – in effect, even ‘sudden’ language change has to preserve some level of intelligibility for the living speech community.
    [2] While it’s a cannon that native speakers – those acquiring a language as their “mother tongue” before myelinization completes, typically around 50 months – have a greater ability (innate, learned, or most likely both) to identify and distinguish valid instances of their language (from non-grammatical pseudo-expressions, in high noise environments, etc.) than those who acquire the language later in life, it’s also true that not all native speakers are equal in producing new language forms, or even if they do, in noticing.
    So it seems the lexicalization process, while subject to historical and cultural restrictions (not all explicit), is also the playground of youth generally, as well as poets, linguists and others afflicted with what Roger Brown called “a quirky gene” to learn new languages, or even to innovate within a language “already known,” engaged in the syntax of things, and plunging as it were into ‘the space between the words’. It’s only in the latter capacities that I would claim any competencies to offer the following suggestions about how new Anglicisms might be formed in French to one of its native speakers.
    Phonologic constraints on word formation
    Your comments point to the [t] + [d] grouping of “foot de table,” positing difficulty in articulating the transition from voiceless to voiced consonant in the same cluster as an explanation of why this possible form did not work for you. [Again, I’m about to step on dangerous ground, since I’ve only once ever heard the term ‘le foot’ used in a French sentence, and in that case, as the isolated citation form answer to my question “comment dit-on ‘soccer’ en français?” rather than as usage in continuous speech, the topic here.]
    Since there’s certainly no shortage of appeals to articulatory ease [though examples of a voiceless consonant ‘assimilating’ the voicing feature of a following (homorganic) voiced constituent are plentiful] in the literature of sound change, you would not be alone in your analysis, particularly at the phonological level. But in light of the more complex set of language change factors exposed above, and looking more closely at your examples in the discussion to follow, I’m about to dare [risky ground!] suggest that the explanation you, a native speaker, propose may not apply, based on my [limited] understand of the language, which assumes at least two basic facts about French:
    (a) Word-final /t/ is generally silent unless followed by a vocalic segment.
    (b) The particle ‘de’ does not form a grammatical exception to (a).
    The stronger form of fact (a) is the insertion of [t] between vowels at a word boundary (e.g. the familiar “a-t-il” construction), and of course fact (b) can be demonstrated in a single example, “J’ai un portrait de mes amis à la maison.”
    More directly, the voiceless-voiced transition you posit may not occur in the example you offer, since (again to the best of my understanding, having never heard the utterance) at the level of phonetic realization, “foot de table” and “fou de table” would seem to be homophonic in French. Please correct me if I am mistaken on this point.
    Higher level contributions to word formation
    What follows is predicated on the view that a better explanation of word formation may be found beyond phonology by considering (as suggested above) grammatical function, and by adding other factors, such as natural language semantics and an available lexical morphology, to the repertoire from which the constituents of new word candidates may be drawn.
    From this perspective, let’s consider ‘baby-foot’ as a possible Anglicism for French. To me as an (American) English speaker, there are several reasons why the expression is not a good candidate generic term for the foosball product:
    Semantic interference: Simply stated, native speakers of English would tend to mark ‘baby-foot’ as a ‘foreign construction’. Some reasons why: [1] “baby foot” already has at least a couple of meanings [i.e. (rarely, perhaps in reference to dolls) ‘miniature foot’ and (more generally) ‘foot of an infant’] in actual use. [2] Also, through a more frequently occurring “baby steps,” some nuance readings of ‘pace’ or ‘length’ relating to a unit of measure or distance somewhat less than a conventional 30.5 cm are also a likely factor in cognitive processing. It is not clear that adding a hyphen alone creates a distinct meaning for English (though this issue may matter less when forming an Anglicism in French).
    Lexical selection constraints: Fundamentally, we tend to use ‘baby’ as a prefix to indicate (‘small’ surely, but on point here, also) ‘immature’, ‘child-like’, etc. [I don’t think this usage requires the modified noun to be animate, however – for example, the 190 Mercedes when introduced in the US about a decade ago was often called a ‘baby Mercedes’ – some may interpret the American fascination with the automobile as animistic, of course].
    Moreover, here in Silicon Valley at least, we have available an inventory of frequently used prefix forms that signal ‘miniature’ without implying ‘immature’ – these include, ‘mini-‘, ‘micro-‘, ‘nano-‘, etc., as well as a just now emerging class of suffices (e.g. ‘-lite’ – though of course “footlight” is already taken).
    Since the temptation here is to suggest possible Anglicisms that might work in French, my vote would be for “micro-foot.”
    Some other thoughts to ponder in contemplating word formation. Some of the factors reflect patterns of use they seem arbitrary at best. The following are musings and language jokes collected around my house lately:
    We have the word “demolish” to describe tearing apart an aged structure, so when we restore an antique structure by replacing its missing parts, why can’t we use a term like “remolish” to describe the process? [my own formation]
    We have pairs like ‘subordinate’ and ‘superordinate’, but there is no conjugate term matching ‘subsume’ — i.e. “supersume” is undefined in English. [from a discussion with my business partner]
    If a Roman priest elected to use a New England berry juice instead of wine for the mass, would the resulting miracle be called ‘cransubstantiation’? [My daughter claims this gem as her own, analytically, it derives from a beverage maker here, “Ocean Spray” that markets a number of Cranberry juice mixtures using the constituent fruit names, concatenated with epenthesis, to form product names – e.g. ‘cranapple’]
    En temoinage de nos respecteuse amitié, etc.
    David Gjerdrum, Inc.
    1000 Elwell Court, Suite 110
    Palo Alto, CA 94303

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