What Makes A Word “Fancy”?

ATTENTION: This is NOT a political post. It is a post about language.

Anderson Cooper and Kellyanne Conway engage in a war of words.
Anderson Cooper and Kellyanne Conway engage in a war of words.

I’m embarrassed to admit to how much time I waste on Facebook, but I just expended nearly half an hour of my life listening to Anderson Cooper and Kellyanne Conway say the same thing to each other for twenty-five minutes and fifty-three seconds.

From what I could tell, the one thing that Cooper wanted to get across was that CNN is not BuzzFeed, whereas Conway was intent on asserting that CNN and BuzzFeed are two of a kind.

My interest in the conversation focuses on Conway’s expressed contempt for the word dossier:

CONWAY: Well, in that report, yes, it’s all fake news. People keep using the word dossier like some fancy French word is going to imbue it with credibility.

Apparently the alleged report is being referred to in the media as a dossier, as in the paragraph that introduced it on the BuzzFeed site:

A dossier, compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official, alleges Russia has compromising information on Trump. The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.

Dossier IS a word of French origin, but there’s nothing particularly fancy about it. The word is often used to refer to information collected by an intelligence agency about people it is investigating. For example:

Hoover is the inventor of the modern American national security state. Every fingerprint file, every DNA record, every iris recorded through biometrics, every government dossier on every citizen and alien in this country owes its life to him.
—Tim Weiner, author, Enemies: A History of the FBI.

Some synonyms for dossier are file, report, case history, and data.

A stack of dossiers
A stack of dossiers

The French word actually has a quite homely origin. It was coined by some forgotten French speaker who perceived a resemblance between a bulging packet of papers and a human being’s back. The French word for back is dos.

What troubles me about Conway’s remark is the way it falls into the much exploited theme of anti-intellectualism that is so prevalent in US culture.

Adair Kalyan and David Spade in RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
In the television comedy Rules of Engagement, David Spade’s character frequently ridicules the vocabulary of the educated character played by Adhir Kalyan.

One of the most constant tropes of television comedy is the nerdy character who uses big words and is ridiculed for it by the “regular” characters.

I find Conway’s dismissal of the word dossier as “a fancy French word” especially piquant in the light of a word she uses earlier in the back-and-forth with Anderson:

COOPER: I don’t read BuzzFeed, so I am not going to speak for them or defend them. I don’t think they should have published unsubstantiated allegations against the president-elect of the United States. I think that’s inappropriate.

CONWAY: Maybe they would not have, maybe they would not have, had the imprimatur of CNN, the vaunted name of CNN, [not] gone first. You went first. They were second.


A book containing an Imprimatur notice.
A title page containing an Imprimatur notice.

I suspect that a great many English speakers would find the word imprimatur a lot “fancier” than dossier.

Latin imprimatur is the third person singular present subjunctive passive form of the verb imprimere: “to print,” literally, “Let it be printed.”

The use of imprimatur that I’m most familiar with is in the context of publications (or movies) that have been vetted by the Catholic church and declared to be free of doctrinal or moral error.

A more general sense of imprimatur is “a mark of approval.” My question: If dossier is a “fancy French word,” wouldn’t imprimatur be a “fancy Latin word”?

Words are tools. Careful writers and speakers choose the best tool for the job. English words come from every language on earth. I don’t think their language of origin should be used against them.