Expressing the Cybermedium (3) :
seven years later

Russon Wooldridge

University of Toronto

© September 2005 R. Wooldridge

Written for a volume entitled New Paths for Computing Humanists to be published by University of Toronto Press.



There are fields – like, for example, the theatre, museology, feminine beauty, sexual identity, the death of languages or astrology – which have idiomatic expression in English and French. There are others that are created within a particular culture and that, becoming universal, are first expressed in the language of that culture and subsequently, through borrowing and translation, in other languages. Such is the case of the Internet, essentially an American creation and development, whose terminology is created in English.

In April 1998, the present author published a study of the expression of the Internet in English and French (Wooldridge 1998). A first follow-up appeared five years later (Wooldridge 2003). The present instalment comes seven and a half years after the initial study and two and a half after the first follow-up.

1. 1997 - 2003 - 2005

1.1. Browser / navigateur

Whereas the word browser was quickly adapted by English, the language of creation of Internet terminology, there was for a long time – and still is to some extent – a concurrence of terms, as is typically the case, in other languages, torn between formal or semantic borrowing and idiomaticity. In December 1997, the raw results for four equivalent French terms for browser were the following: In March 2003, the search engine Google gave the following results: And in September 2005: Observations : 1) The exponential increase in the number of results reflects the huge development of the Web, mainly the total, virtual Web but also the percentage of it that is observable through indexing. 2) The term navigateur remains dominant, even more in the 2000s than in the 1990s.

Here is what the Vocabulaire d'Internet of the Office québécois de la langue française has to say in its entry for Web browser:

The entry is now much simpler than it was in 2003 (see Wooldridge 2003).

1.2. Freeware

A similar situation. The term freeware was quickly adopted by English, whereas there are several concurrent denominations in French. First the figures for December 1997: The results for March 2003: Those for September 2005: Observations : 1) Whereas in the case of browser variation in French is lexical, here concurrence comes from phonetic and orthographic confusion: graticiel and gratisciel (the purist and cumbersome latter has almost disappeared) derived from gratis; gratuiciel and gratuitiel derived from gratuit, the former keeping the suffix -ciel of logiciel, the latter retaining the final t of gratuit, both having the same pronunciation. 2) In 1997 the most frequent form was graticiel, but at some point before 2003 gratuiciel took over first place and has strengthened it since. 3) The most frequent lexical form by far however is the English word freeware(s) (Google, documents in French, Sept. 2005 = 2851000); one should be leery of this last figure since "documents in French" can include bilingual French and English ones, but a comparison of "un freeware" (80900) and "le freeware" (22400) with "un gratuiciel" (12000) and "le gratuiciel" (10600) confirms the higher frequency of the term borrowed from English.

The Vocabulaire d'Internet of the Office québécois de la langue française, under the entry for freeware, gives:

2. The Web in 2005: email and spam, courriel and pourriel (or Spam, spam, spam)

In 1997 the Internet was innocent, there was a thing called netiquette. Since then the Internet has become commercial and aggressive. The automatic dredging of the Internet, and in particular of the Web, in blind search of potential consumers, has resulted, among other things, in genuine email being submerged by spam; or as French can more elegantly express it: "de noyer le courriel dans le pourriel".

First the word courriel and a distinction between Canadian and French usage. Whereas the French hesitate between e-mail, email, mail, mél, mèl and mel (the six forms are, or at least were, to be found on one page of the Université Joseph Fourier de Grenoble web site), French-speaking Canadians tend to use the more satisfactory word courriel.

Another Canadian initiative that is just as elegant and expressive: the word pourriel, equivalent of the English word spam.

Under the entry for spam the Wikipédia says:

Web figures bear witness to the rareness of polluriel. Google (Sept. 2005) finds pourriel in 269000 French-language documents, polluriel in only 727 (as against 2000 and 800 respectively in March 2003). The Office québécois de la langue française, which in 1997 recommended both pourriel and polluriel, with different meanings (pourriel = junk e-mail; polluriel = spam), continues to maintain its original, normative position regardless of actual and current usage which regards junk e-mail and spam as basically the same thing.

Whereas the Office québécois de la langue française derives pourriel from poubelle and courriel (cf. above), Le Jargon français (its entry for pourriel hasn't changed since February 1999) sees it as a contraction of courriel pourri. Both etymologies are completely valid; it's not the original motivation which counts, but the one given it by the user.

To return to the Wikipédia the most frequent French term for spam or junk email would appear to be the English word spam. Google bears this out, finding the word spam in 2980000 French-language documents (Sept. 2005, as against 127000 in March 2003). The September 2005 figures for spam preceded by a singular article are: le spam x 1940000; un spam x 61000; du spam x 372000 (the du is ambiguous: partitive article or contraction of the preposition de and the definite article le).


English Internet terminology was, and continues to be, established early and quickly, and has relatively few synonyms. French terminology has managed to create a number of its own terms, such as logiciel, more frequent in French now than the English software. In other cases a borrowing from English competes with an idiomatic French term or terms: freeware, graticiel, gratuiciel and gratuitiel; spam and pourriel. The rivalry between English and French forms can occasionally be defined in geographical terms: several European variants of the English email, against the standardization of the term courriel in North America. One should also perhaps take into account the pronounceability of the English term in French: if freeware, spam and email (et al.) present francophones with few problems of pronunciation, the word browser is much harder to handle.



• Le Jargon français, <>.
• Vocabulaire d'Internet de l'Office québécois de la langue française, <>.
• Wikipédia: l'encyclopédie libre, <>.
• Wooldridge 1998 = Russon Wooldridge, "Expressing the Cybermedium in English and French", CH Working Papers, A 10, <>.
• Wooldridge 2003 = Russon Wooldridge, "L'expression d'Internet en anglais et français (2): cinq ans après", <>.