Ordering a croissant is a perilous enterprise. It forces lovers of French pastries between the Scylla of pretension and the frying pan of provincialism. Actually that’s understating the case: The perils are not two, but manifold.
If you attempt the proper French pronunciation, krwa-san, and succeed, you’ll seem snobby. If you trip over the guttural R, as so many non-native speakers do, you’ll seem pseudointellectual.
If you go for the namby-pamby middle ground, kwa-san, replacing the guttural R with a W, you’ll sound terrible… and namby-pamby.
You could avoid these dangers by pronouncing the word in a straightforward American accident: kruh-sant. But then you’ll quite possibly become the victim rather than the perpetrator of snobbery. Recently I requested a kruh-sant and the server raised an eyebrow. "You mean a krwa-san?" he asked.
Having thought long and hard about this thorny problem, I’ve determined that it would be wise if everyone in America agreed to a standard pronunciation. And of the above-mentioned possibilities, it seems to me the best is kruh-sant.
I’ll dispense with the most obvious and weakest objection first, which is that croissant is a French word. Because: So what? Restaurant is a French word, too, but no one drops the final T.
Jane Setter, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Reading and an editor of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, suggested another reason why English-speakers might consider themselves justified in saying—or trying to say—krwa-san. Croissants, she told me, feel French. Doughnuts are American; croissants are French, even if they’re on sale at Dunkin’ Donuts.
But that’s not very rational. Croissants have been common in the United States for a long time. In 1981, Sara Lee’s parent company, Consolidated Foods, introduced a line of frozen croissants. By 1984 they were outselling pound cake. You can buy a croissant at any Starbucks. You can order one at Arby’s with a sausage, egg and cheese on top.
On my side I count Merriam-Webster. The dictionary offers a few pronunciations of the word in print—krȯ-ˈsänt, krə- or krwä-ˈsäⁿ—but gives up this apparent diplomacy in its audio file. Click the speaker icon next to croissant and you’ll hear kruh-sant. R as in restaurant. T as in restaurant.
Henry Watson Fowler, the British lexicographer known for his 1926 usage dictionary, would probably agree with me as well. He wrote in that dictionary:
"To say a French word in the middle of an English sentence exactly as it would be said by a Frenchman in a French sentence is a feat demanding an acrobatic mouth; the muscles have to be suddenly adjusted to a performance of a different nature, & after it as suddenly recalled to the normal state; it is a feat that should not be attempted; the greater its success as a tour de force, the greater its failure as a step in the conversational progress; for your collocutor, aware that he could not have done it himself, has his attention distracted whether he admires or is humiliated."
You wouldn’t want to humiliate or distract your collocutor, would you? When you order a croissant, you’re—presumably—not looking for applause or to start a conversation about that idyllic summer you spent in the French countryside, you’re just hungry.
Fowler also says that it’s alright to acknowledge "indebtedness to the French language" through "some approach in some part of the word to the foreign sound." He means by this that English-speakers can allow themselves just a touch of Gaul: Belle-lett-ruh not belle-letters. Perhaps, then, Fowler would condone kruh-san: no final T.
Although I suppose that’s an acceptable compromise, it’s one that—it must be said—doesn’t live up to New World ideals. This is America. This is a melting pot. In this country we aim to fully integrate our immigrants instead of creating a permanent alienated class. Let’s not ghettoize pastries of French origin, let’s Americanize them. We accepted the restaurant with open arms. We should give croissants the same treatment.
Juliet Lapidos is an editor at the New York Times. Photo by Sodanie Chea.