Suspense. It’s French … sort of.


a : mental uncertainty : anxiety
   b : pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome <a novel of suspense>

— from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Suspense is a “French English” word that has a few meanings in our language but is used most often to describe a sense of nervous anticipation, whether the circumstances involve dread or eagerness. For instance, we feel suspense when we’re waiting for someone to make a decision that’s out of our hands :

“Oh, please, please! Let them make a decent offer on my apartment so I can finally sell it!”

“When am I going to hear back from the prefecture? And what am I going to do if they end up refusing to renew my visa?”  

But we can also feel it when we’re watching a television show and the episode ends with a dramatic event, while leaving the story unresolved :

“What in the world are they going to do now? Is he alive or dead? And what am I supposed to do with myself until next week?!”

                                                              … or when we’re reading a book, the chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and despite the fact that we have to get up early the next morning, we just have to start the next one. 

“Suspense” came into Middle English from Anglo-French, one of those lexical imports during the first few centuries after the Norman Conquest. Its first recorded English use was in 1306 in the legal term “en suspens” meaning “not executed, unfulfilled.” By 1440, the word had also developed the sense of a “state of mental uncertainty” … because, I guess, whatever legal judgment that was “en suspens” had not yet been carried out and the future was stressfully unclear. The Anglo-French “suspens” itself derives from the Old French “suspens,” from the Latin  “suspensus” (the past participle of the verb “suspendere“) meaning “delayed.”

Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense

The interesting thing about “suspense” is that, even though it originally comes from French, it never meant “a state of mental uncertainty” in that language until quite recently. That sense of the word was a purely English development of the Middle Ages. In fact, before the 1950s* and the arrival of the cinematic genius of Alfred Hitchcock, “suspense” existed in the French language only as the esoteric term for the revocation of a priest’s duties as the result of ecclesiastical censure. (A church trial would have been a very suspenseful event for a French priest, of course, but he never would have described it that way.) Thanks to the new genre of literature and cinema bearing the name, though, “suspense” re-entered the French lexicon in the post-war years with a new meaning and a new pronunciation …

Now, if you know a little French, you might be tempted to pronounce suspense like this:

\sy.spɑ̃s\ … “syoo-spaw(n)s”

That would be fine, except that you’d still be talking about that troublesome priest. Because the new sense of the word is an anglicisme for the French, they try to say it the way we do and end up with:

\sy.spɛnts\ … “syoo-spents”
(not too far off from our \sə.spɛnts\ … “suh-spents”)

So, all that’s to say that if you’re tempted to use the word “suspense” when speaking French, remember not to follow my rule about pronouncing English words with a French accent until you find the French cognate. That really only works for the words we got from the French a long time ago and spent centuries changing. For anglicisms in French like suspense, you have to use a different rule : pronounce the word like a French person trying to speak like an American!

So that’s it until the next post on Mardi Gras, dear readers.
I hope you can bear the suspense …

P.S.—A note on suspend and suspension :

The French verb suspendre also exists, and it means the same thing the English verb “suspend” means: to hang (like a suspension bridge—”un pont suspendu“) or to interrupt momentarily until a later date (like a suspended sentence or suspended operations—”La société est suspendue de ses fonctions.”). Similarly, the French noun suspension carries the same sense as the English cognate.

P.P.S.—The footnote :

* I’ve found one instance of suspens used in 1886 to describe a dramatic device in Hamlet. It seems clear from other sources, however, that the use of the term suspense was generally unknown until the arrival of the suspense genre after 1951.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

3 thoughts on “Suspense. It’s French … sort of.

  1. Thanks, I keep stumbling on your page when searching for info.
    I was wondering why the announcer on RFI “Journal en français facile” pronounced ‘suspens’ sort of american. I found mixed results with audio examples. Now it makes sense (pron. sents)

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