Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

How To Order A Croissant

WHAT DO YOU SAYOrdering 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.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

BadUncle (#153)

Hey, why not order up a cruhsandwich on a crescent roll?

Moxie (#81,363)

I wholeheartedly agree. I have lived in different european countries for a while, and most people pronounce English words with the pronunciation of the language they are speaking. Interestingly, "euro" is pronounced differently in these different countries and it is weirdly disconcerting to hear somebody talking about the price of something in, say, Italian, and then drop the German oy-Roh in the middle of a sentence.

At any rate, I once ordered a krwa-san at a rural Dunkin' Donuts and the response scarred me. Thank you for this important article!

Mr. B (#10,093)

Good stuff, but (here comes the snobbery) oh my goodness those comma splices and also "all right" is two words. Someone alert Phil Corbett!

ejcsanfran (#489)

I for one am quite proud of my acrobatic mouth. Though I still tend to mumble when faced with a kouign-amann.

ccd (#262,515)

But if it's "kruh-san" how do you indicate a plural? Don't ask me to use the Britishese and just say "I bought kruh-san" and assume that the lack of an article makes my intention clear.

@ccd "krwa-sant". The s makes the t audible.

I call them Pastry Moons.

JMaiullo (#286,871)

@Ruth Mary Linton@facebook
In the cono sur section of Latin American they call them media lunas; kinda´the same thing.

KarenUhOh (#19)


foxbat91 (#9,832)

"Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly."
-George Orwell, England my England

beschizza (#1,421)

Any Englishman who does not pronounce it "Croy Sont" is a traitor.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Hey, isn't that a pain chocolat in the photo?

tuntastica (#9,011)

@stuffisthings I'm sorry, do you mean a pain au chocolat?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@tuntastica yessss someone bit

Rather than trying to get us all to agree on an anglicized version of the word (and there are so many), why don't we just agree not to be condescending pricks to each other based on pronunciation?

Raised speaking French and English simultaneously, I will always pronounce it "krwa-san". The day I start getting lazy with it will be the day the rest of my pronunciation suffers. I don't mind hearing other people fail to pronounce it, but if you tell me I'm being snobby by doing so, I'll tell you to go do something rather inappropriate to yourself.

Besides, English uses borrowed words and phrases everywhere. If you're going to get anal about one word in particular, you've got a massive headache ahead of you, especially within French: "fiancée", "résumé", "matinée"…

hungrybee (#2,091)

I have this problem, but with gyros. I just can't bring myself to say "gyro" with the received New York pronunciation, and I can't bear the stunned confusion if I say it the other (more correct) way.

lourod (#262,781)

As a west coast Canadian with (anglo) parents from Ottawa, I face the same dilemma for different reasons. My parents say "krwa-san," my friends and my city say "kru-sant." My highly diverse city with a lot of second-language English speakers sometimes asks for clarification if I order a "krwa-san." My middle-class, marginally French-fluent pedant parents were very insistent on drumming "krwa-san" into me as a sign of sophistication or something — yep, along with "serviette" and "pardon." If I'm in a cafe with my mother, I'll order a bagel instead.

JMaiullo (#286,871)

I've worked in cafés from Michigan to California and I've been in 1,000s besides. I've heard many a gruff, humorless dialect swing up from "Yeah, cupa' cawfee, ah, one o' dem' begels,' to suddenly dance across the nimble sounds of "CWASAH!" and then drop back down to "and a hot choc'lat." It's as if the speaker were suddenly surprised by the French word springing from their mouth unbidden. It's always entertaining, especially when to clarify you ask if they indeed ordered a croissant calling it a /cruhsant/, which makes them only repeat the rediculous sounding word. But I'm a hypocrite. I call it Amari-yo, Texas. I can't do the Amarilo-thing even if that's what everyone else says. I do try like hell to play down the accent, though.

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