Writers of formal French prose dislike repeating a person’s name; they also dislike frequent use of the personal pronoun forms il, elle used in place of a name. One much loved device for avoiding both hated alternatives is a type of périphrase.
French périphrase1 substitutes for a noun directly meaning a thing (or person), a phrase referring to one or more features of the thing (rôle, accomplishment, origin…).2 Here, as I say, it is employed to avoid using (or, especially, repeating) a person’s name.
- Quand l‘auteur des Précieuses ridicules apprit que sa troupe avait perdu l’appui de son mécène, sa consternation fut grande. (When the author of Les Précieuses ridicules learned that his troupe had lost the support of its patron, his consternation was great.)
Commentary: Molière is meant. His first great success in Paris was Les Précieuses ridicules (1659).
- Avec cette condemnation venant de Rome, l’aigle de Meaux avait définitivement triomphé du cygne de Cambrai. (With this condemnation coming from Rome, the eagle of Meaux had definitively triumphed over the swan of Cambrai.)
Commentary: Bossuet (1627-1704) and Fénelon (1651-1715) are meant. Bossuet was the bishop of Meaux, and in the Quietist controversy a fierce opponent of the mild-mannered and poetic Fénelon, bishop of Cambrai.
- L’érudit américain répondit à ses critiques dans un article publié huit jours plus tard. (The American scholar answered his critics in an article published one week later.)
Commentary: Very frequently used to avoid repeating a scholar’s name. Can be used for a scholar of any nationality (substitute the appropriate proper adjective), so long as it isn’t French: you will never see l’érudit français.3 Consider also these other cases involving a rôle followed by a geopolitical adjective:
- le poéte champenois (the Champagne poet) = Chrétien de Troyes
- le dramaturge normand (the Norman playwright) = Pierre de Corneille
- le philologue finlandais (the Finnish philologist) = Elias Lönnrot
- la physicienne polonaise (the Polish physicist) = Marie Curie
- l’académicienne belge (the Belgian academician4) = Marguerite Yourcenar
Of course, périphrase can also be used for things…
- l’astre de la nuit (the moon)
- l’astre du jour (the sun)
- le roi des animaux (The lion)
- le neuvieme art (graphic novels [la bande-dessinée])
- le plat pays (la Belgique)5
…and, whether it is used to refer to people or things, even in French périphrase can serve legitimate stylistic purposes: for a list of the possibilities, with examples, see the Wikipédia article Périphrase.
In the present file, however, my point (as I said at the outset) is that périphrase is often used in formal French prose, not so much for real stylistic adornment, but rather to avoid repeating a person’s name or using in its place a personal pronoun.
- NOT to be confused with the English or French term paraphrase. Meanwhile, English “PERIphrasis” CAN mean, like French périphrase, the figure of speech we are discussing here, but more often is used in a grammatical or linguistic context. French périphrase, for its part, can similarly be used in a linguistic context, but its use as a figure of style is more prominent (see the TLFi entry for this word.)
- The French word épithète CAN have a similar meaning to périphrase, but most commonly French épithète is used in a grammatical context and simply means a descriptive adjective used in a noun phrase.
- French writers appear to consider l’érudit français redundant.
- An académicien/ne is a member of the French Academy.
- “Le chanteur du plat pays” would be a périphrase for: Jacques Brel.