Peace craneAre English speakers more creative in their use of language? I don’t know, but some of the English terms that crop to designate new concepts and ideas sometimes are just perfect. “Astroturfing” is an excellent example, even if it’s not so new, as its first use apparently goes back to 1985: if “grassroots” describes a movement anchored in the community, “astroturfing”, which comes from AstroTurf, the artificial grass widely used in sports fields and stadiums, is very clear: it is “made up grassroots”. It is a fake grassroots movement designed to give the impression that it is spontaneous and comes from the base. Its members are present in the media and on the web, where they “share” their experiences in order to generate a buzz around a product or an idea.
The Wikipedia entry on astroturfing is excellent, and the whole issue of astroturfing raises many questions, but I won’t go into them here since they have been discussed in detail elsewhere. What interests me as a French translator and language lover is what name this new concept will take in my mother tongue. Initial research suggests that it has been borrowed in its English form. Since the French equivalent of “grassroots” is not a figurative term (“grassroots mouvement” could be translated as mouvement citoyen, populaire, de base ou communautaire) it is difficult to play on the word by finding its “fake” equivalent i.e. “astroturf”. The alternatives would be to use a description, like stratégie de manipulation basée sur un mouvement citoyen d’apparence spontané, mais en réalité orchestré dans un but précis, which, I agree, is a mouthful, or to borrow “astroturfing” and hope that the readers will be familiar with the concept.
To go back to my question in the first paragraph, there is actually a French neologism that I love, because it’s quite romantic, but also because it is incredibly handy when translating: internaute, built on the same model as “astronaut” and “cosmonaut” to designate someone who travels on the internet. “Web user” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
Fake grass photo by JPDaigle

By | 2011-09-01T10:43:01+00:00 September 1st, 2011|Words|15 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. jemima September 1, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Is the English equivalent of internaute “web surfer”?

  2. céline September 1, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    It can be, but I’ve never come across it in any of my translations; “web user” seems to be more common, amongst my clients at least.

  3. Peter September 1, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    A French neologism that we use here in Quebec is “courriel,” which I find very elegant indeed. Too bad it doesn’t seem to have caught on among European French-speakers.

  4. céline September 1, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Us European French speakers are such a let down, aren’t we. I like “courriel” and I love “pourriel”.

  5. Jenny September 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I also like “courriel” and “pourriel” very much. Most people seam to use “mail” or “mél” (Message Electronique).

  6. Simon September 1, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    I’ve used ‘courriel’ a couple of times in France and got funny looks, with people telling me that’s ‘plutôt soutenu’ and I should rather use ‘mail’. But then again, despite the Académie française, complete English glossaries seem to have been imported wholesale (another snappy metaphor!), especially into the tech and business fields. My wife, as project manager for a French-based multinational, was amazed that the company appeared to have no French project terminology. A few English terms were used (like ‘project timeline’) but mostly concepts had to be laboriously spelled out in French like your ‘astroturf’ example.
    Generalising a bit, painting is the French artistic medium of expression par excellence — and not just on canvas: French music is full of sound painting, mimicry and amospheric impressionism, from the middle ages onwards. So, to come back to your original question, is there any coherent reason why the langauage appears so short of pictorial, metaphorical and, above all, concise terminology?

  7. céline September 2, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Well Simon, I’ve asked myself the same question many times. If you fancy researching the subject, I’ll be delighted to publish your conclusions here.

  8. Catherine September 2, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Another food-for-thought post, thank you! “Astroturfing” is a great word in English. I agree that “pourriel” and “internaute” are awesome in French. I’ve often wondered, how would you say “mommy blogger” in French?

  9. céline September 2, 2011 at 10:49 am

    “Mommy blogger” could just be translated literally by “maman blogueuse”. On the other hand, the very evocative “yummy mummy” and “slummy mummy” are much trickier…

  10. Simon September 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    🙂 It was an observation and a question. I don’t have a linguist’s resources, so any research I do would be wayyyy superficial.

  11. EP September 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Yes, internaute is great. But it almost rings a little antiquated (retro?) in my ears, like something out of a Jules Verne novel!
    As for astroturf, I don’t think the Wikipedia post addressed it, or I didn’t see it, but I believe astroturf gets its name from the Astrodome stadium. It still remains a strange name, but at least that makes somewhat more sense.
    “In 1966, the Houston Astros’ baseball season begins on a Chemgrass surface now renamed Astroturf at the AstroDome.”

  12. céline September 4, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    “Something out of a Jules Verne novel” – yes, exactly, that’s what I meant by “romantic”.
    Thanks a lot for the info on the origin of the name, I had no idea that’s where the “astro” bit came from.

  13. Katherine September 7, 2011 at 4:29 am

    I love internaute too! I think surfer is a good equivalent in terms of creativity, but they aren’t always used in equivalent contexts.
    And thanks EP, I always wondered why it was “astro” turf!
    Based on your examples (and Simon’s), and my knowledge of neologisms in Spanish and German, it does seem that English speakers are more creative with language. I’m always disappointed when a foreign language has borrowed the English word instead of coming up with one of their own (and vice versa, which does happen too!). Though there are other reasons for this, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are less creative. e.g. in German there seems to be an association of prestige with companies that use English business terms instead of German ones. Kind of like the use of French cooking terms in English.

  14. Mona September 19, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    It is true that the French language is somehow invaded by lots of English terms. I think this partly comes from the fact that people do not try hard enough to find linguistic equivalents of some widely used English terms, “mail” instead of “courriel” being one of them. French translators should not give up and try and find business French terms rather than systematically using the English ones.

  15. céline September 26, 2011 at 11:36 am

    I’m not sure I agree with you, Mona. I don’t think translators are supposed to be “guardians of language”. My job is to provide clients with translations filled with relevant and current vocabulary and terminology, whether they are made up of borrowed words or not. I don’t think they’d appreciate me going all “purist” on them…

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