Think twice before you use a UFO – an unidentified foreign object

foreign words in copywritingSeveral years ago, a friend of a friend decided to give her sales literature a touch of class. And what could be classier than giving it a light sprinkling of French? So that’s just what she did. She had her web copy rewritten, as well as her brochure, case studies and virtually every other piece of marketing collateral she had. And it certainly added something – though not quite what she expected. She’d intended to say that her company was different, out of the ordinary – it had that little something extra that made her stand out from the crowd. The phrase she needed was ready-made in French: je ne sais quoi. Literally, it means I don’t know what – that elusive quality that defies description, but gives you the edge. Except that’s not what she wrote. Throughout every piece of written communication she had, she wrote je ne sais pasI don’t know, which creates an altogether different impression. A faux pas if ever there was one. So if you’re thinking of giving your copy a little foreign flavour, try following these three simple rules.

1. You have to to get it right

To see just how odd an incorrect foreign expression appears, all we have to do is look at some of the ‘English’ that foreign marketers use to give them that extra something.
  • Some years ago, Coca-Cola cans in Japan carried the slogan I feel Coke & sound special. (No, don’t think about it – it doesn’t help.)
  • How about a nice new suit from a men’s clothing store in Brussels called Big Nuts? Sounds like an offer you can refuse.
  • If you’re roasting a turkey in France, make sure you cover it with tin foil. Or Alu-Fanny, it’s called the other side of the Channel.
Luckily, we don’t coin such toe-curlingly awful examples. But we do mangle perfectly good expressions with depressing regularity. Just recently, I saw a perfume ad that talked about joie de vie (it should be joie de vivre). And on more than one occasion, I’ve seen ad nauseum (instead of ad nauseam) in otherwise excellent copy.

2. It can’t get in the way of comprehension

If you write about a per diem allowance, will you audience know that it’s daily? If you write plus ça change, will your readers know the implication – or even the rest of the phrase? (In full, it’s plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more the stay the same.) If not, maybe you should simply write nothing ever changes. Just to be clear: it’s all about context. These expressions would be perfectly acceptable if you were writing for a specialised audience. But in the mass market of copywriting, anything that gets in the way of understanding is a bad thing.

3. It must pass the overnight test

You write it. You’re pleased with it. You keep reading it and marvelling at your handiwork. Now leave it overnight, and in the harsh, unforgiving light of a new day, see if you like it as much. Thought not.