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Derailer, Not Derailleur!

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by Sheldon "Vélomane" Brown
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Traditionally, in U.S. usage, the gear-change mechanism we all know and love has been called a "derailleur." This is actually a French word, but it is commonly pronounced in an anglicized manner, as "de-RAIL-er" or "de-RAIL-yur." The actual French pronunciation is more like "day-RYE-EUH" but nobody says that when speaking English. The proper French spelling is "dérailleur," not "derailleur."

The French Ministry of Culture and Communication has been on a campaign to purge the French language of the "impurity" caused by the introduction of foreign, (especially English) words into French speech and writing. In an attempt to combat "cultural imperialism", or "franglais" the Ministry has been attempting to banish such terms as "le week-end", "Walkman" (which they mistakenly think is English), "FAX", "Computer", etc. and replace them with special made-up French words. ("fin-de-semaine", "baladeur", "telecopieur", "ordinateur"...)

When you consider how many French words are already in the English language, as the result of real imperialism (William the Conqueror, 1066!) I think it is time to defend the "purity" of the English tongue; you have to draw the line somewhere, and I have drawn it at "dérailleur."

I am on a one-man campaign to replace the foreign spelling "dérailleur" with the English spelling and pronunciation "derailer." I have been using this spelling in all of my writing for some time, and urge others to do the same.

The word "derailer" (or "dérailleur") is actually a metaphor, relating the gear change to what happens when a railroad train goes off the tracks. In English, we call this a "derailment," not a "déraillement."

In fact, in the railroad industry, there is an obscure device designed to deliberately derail a runaway rail car. This device has always been called a "derailer" in English, and a "dérailleur" in French.

I have written a rather more serious article on derailer adjustment, which may be of interest.

Don't get me wrong, I am not anti-French. I lived in France for a year, I speak fluent French, and love the people and culture of France; I have a Web section devoted to cycle touring in France; I have created a French/English-English/French bicycle dictionary; I read all 1500 pages of Lés Misérables in French, and greatly enjoyed it; but I refuse to use a fake-French spelling or pronunciation for my bicycle's gear changer.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. -- George Bernard Shaw

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John Allen adds --

A reader in England sent in an e-mail and then another, asserting vehemently, that "derailer" is a misspelling. I replied:

Spelling isn't set in stone, as you will quickly discover if you read an original Shakespeare folio, or if you maneuver (manoevre) yourself into reading something written by an American neighbor (neighbour).

And in any case, among all European languages, English has the most confusing spelling, an inconsistent hodgepodge resulting from the collision of Anglo-Saxon, French, Celtic, Latin and Greek word origins followed by several centuries of drift, so holding English spelling up as some kind of moral law is just silly. What would make more sense is spelling reform, toward which Sheldon attempted to make a minor contribution, but sadly, tradition holds.

English spelling does have advantages in that it helps somewhat in clarifying word origins and distinguishing homonyms: there, their, they're, filter, philtre, etc., and that it allows spelling to be taken as an indication of intellectual attainment, if that actually is an advantage. My sister is very bright, but she is dyslexic and spelling is difficult for her. I don't think that English spelling offered any advantage for her in her elementary-school days. In fact, it was a real headache for her and led to problems with self-esteem. If spelling in English were as consistent as it is in German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, even French, she would have had a much easier time.

Though I thought I had enough, I answered this message anyway. Please turn your efforts toward something more consequential. We do try to use standard American English spelling on sheldonbrown.com, but there are misspelled words, mostly due to typing errors. Also, there are bad Web links, mostly due to link rot. If you were to proofread pages, report on these errors and suggest corrections, you would be doing us a real service rather than wasting our time.

And by the way, I speak French too.

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