Ever since Curiosity made it to Mars, there has been an amusing tug of terms in the French media. What word should be used for the rover’s landing? If Curiosity were a plane, it would have made a safe aterrissage (landing). However, that noun is based on touching la terre – French for both “land” and “Earth”. Since what Curiosity achieved was not an “earthing”, is it right to use aterrissage? Le Parisien and numerous others think not and plenty of news reports rejoiced in the amarsissage. They have cunningly restarted a debate that arose in 1969 with the moon landing.
Using the same logic, and because the French love language, this was widely referred to as the alunisissage. Among those unhappy with that from the start were Les Immortels, the members of l’Académie Française. These are the forty guardians of French as she-must-be-spoken. Looking ahead, the Immortals saw an “imbecilic” future in which conquering space would yield a Rolodex – from avénussisage to ajupiterissage. They came down against it by noting that, because it’s derived from terre with a small “t”, the correct term has to be aterissage. No future space probe needed to face questions of “Earthing”.
But the brouhaha is proving resilient. Buoyed by additions to the dictionary like toy boy and oscariser (to give an Academy Award), scribes are refusing to drop their fun new nouns. Result: as many amarsissages as complaints about them.
For the Immortals, it seems like a standoff. Which makes you wonder how the pundits view Le Petit Prince. Certainly the hero’s home, asteroid B-612, presents the perfect poser!
• Lots of folks pontificate about l’Académie Française as a stuffy club opposed to all linguistic progress. Yet, when an Immortal pops up on TV – which happens a lot – he (or she) is usually good value. Not so long ago, we had the saga of Immortal Francois Weyergans taking on the long-vacant “chair of death”, number 32. (Members apply or are proposed not to the body itself, but for a specific seat).
Elected to number 32 in 2004, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet died before he could sit in it. The Immortal before him (historian Robert Aron) had perished six days before his reception. Things were little better in the distant past when military theorist Hippolyte Langlois (1839 – 1912), survived only seven months in le fauteuil de la morte. Louis-Simon Auger, elected to 32 in 1816, became the first Immortal to commit suicide. In 1829, he flung himself off the nearby Pont des Arts.
Apparently not cowed in the least by this saga of death, Weyergans turned up with his (regulation) green coat custom-tailored by Agnès B – an audacious eleven minutes late. Had he read Gaston Leroux’s 1911 The Haunted Chair (Le fauteuil hanté) or Nathalie Rheims’ The Phantom of chair 32 (Le fantôme du fauteuil 32)? Apparently not. Ten days after his reception in “The Dome”, he survived…to model Agnès B’s 2012 menswear.