Monday, September 12, 2005

A cache of cachet

An error I’ve noticed a number of times recently, but only in American writing: spelling cachet (a mark or quality of distinction, individuality, or authenticity) as cache (a hiding place or a store of goods or valuables concealed therein).

From the Contra Costa Times, September 10, Downtown Living Expands (registration required; bugmenot):

Walnut Creek is attracting many other housing developers who also want to capitalize on the city’s cache as a Central Contra Costa County hotspot.
Paul Brian’s Common Errors in English includes an entry on cache and cachet, but discusses only the mispronouncation of cache as cachet. Why might cachet get misspelled as cache?

I suspect the line of thinking is as follows:
  1. cash-ay is a French word, isn’t it?
  2. French usually uses an -é ending for the “ay” sound, doesn’t it?
  3. But words we adopt from French tend to lose their accents, don’t they?
Well, yes, cachet is French. And yes, in French -é does make the “ay” sound. And yes, anglicisation does tend to knock accents off foreign words: café becomes anglicised to cafe, naïve to naive.

But not in this case. cachet has the -et ending, which in French is also pronounced “ay”: think of the American prediliction for pronoucing fillet as fill-ay. And it’s survived intact, in both pronunciation and spelling.

This was probably always an error that writers made from time to time. The rise of computerised spell-checking, as an adjunct to proof-reading, means that cache for cachet is more likely to slip into print undetected.

In fact, both cachet and cache share the same Old French roots. The Old French verb cacher, to press or hide, led to the French verb cacher, to hide, and from there to cache, a hiding place or hidden store; but also to cachet, which originally meant a seal on a document—hence the derivation from “to press”—before assuming a broader meaning as a mark or quality of distinction. And just to close the loop: in French, from cacher, to hide, you get caché, hidden, which shares the same cash-ay pronunciation as cachet.

I rather miss learning, and speaking, French. You’re much more likely to hear Spanish in California; maybe I should take a class.