The health passport is feminine, rules French language guardian

The health passport is feminine, rules French language guardian
Would there be fewer protests if the pass became a passe? Photo: Stephane du Sakatin/AFP
France's health passport - requiring proof of vaccination, Covid recovery or a negative test to enter venues including bars, museums and cafés - has been quite a controversial idea, but now at least one argument has been solved.

The health passport in French is known as a pass sanitaire – but should it be a masculine le pass or a feminine la passe?

Until now the styling had been masculine and the reporting in the French press, as well as government communications have referred to it as a pass sanitaire.

Even president Emmanuel Macron used this styling when he announced the introduction of the health passport on July 12th.

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However, now the French language guardians the Academie française have got involved.

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Not only is pass incorrect, says the Academie in its statement, but – even worse – it’s an Anglicism.

The ruling reads: “The noun ‘pass‘ is an Anglicism to be avoided.

“In French, it could be replaced by the feminine word passe, which can designate a passage permit, a laissez-passer.

“In Stendhal’s Mémoires d’un touriste (1838), we read: “Le sous-préfet […] m’a donné une passe pour l’extrême frontière (The sub-prefect […] gave me a pass for the border) and in Balzac’s Le Martyr calviniste (1841): “Nul ne quitte la ville sans une passe de monsieur de Cypierre, fût-il, comme moi, membre des États” (No one leaves the city without a pass from Mr. de Cypierre, even if he is a member of parliament, like me).”

The Academie does add that a different construction could make the passport masculine, but it would still be spelled passe.

It explains: “In the sense of laissez-passer [a pass or permit] passe, which is somewhat outdated, could be replaced by a masculine form: le passe, short for passe-partout.

“Either of these forms would easily render the meaning contained today in the Anglicism pass, especially since the verb ‘to pass’ is borrowed from the French passer, at little cost, le pass sanitaire and le pass culture would thus become le passe sanitaire and le passe culture“.

The Academie française has previously ruled on Covid – Covid itself is feminine, la Covid, even though le coronavirus is masculine.

But while la Covid has become the widely accepted form, some of the Academie’s other pronouncements are less well observed.

It has over the years made a concerted effort to replace Anglicisms – particularly tech-related terms – with French alternatives, but many of these have failed to take off.

The most notorious example is wifi, where the Academie wanted to replace le wifi (pronounced whiffy in French) with the cumbersome l’access sans fil à internet (wireless access to the internet) – they were widely ignored by the French who continue to use le wifi.

But on health passports, Macron is officially wrong – at least when it comes to spelling.

OPINION Macron’s health passport is an unsung triumph for France 


Member comments

  1. Thank God, the English language doesn’t have genders for nouns! It’s one of the most advantageous facets of the English language when I tell my French pupils that they don’t have to worry about the genders of everyday things such as cows in the field, or cars in garages, or whatever. Most other (dare I say “inferior “) languages have masculine or feminine or even neuter genders. O dear…those poor Brits who need to mug up on foreign genders….my heart goes out to them!

    1. In Modern English, pronouns are largely still gendered, as are ships and some other entities (e.g., referred to as “she”). Old English was gendered (three genders).

      As far as I am aware, in Modern English there is no ungendered pronoun *unambiguously* for a single individual human. You can use “they” (yes, it is singular as well as plural (and has been used in a singular sense for centuries, OED traces it back to the 14th century)), or in some contexts, “you”, but there is no (known to me) one-word pronoun substitution for the simple “she or he” (sometimes written “(s)he” or similar).

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