Tuesday, February 24, 2009


contretemps [KON-truh-tahn]
n. an awkward or embarrassing little situation

[From French contre ("against") + temps ("time")]

When words come into English from French, as contretemps obviously did, and they are not anglicized, it's almost impossible to use them unpretentiously. You can either mispronounce the word, say counter-TEMP; or you can pronounce it correctly and sound like a fool who thinks a French accent makes you a sophisticate. Either way, it's not a winning situation. What's most important, then, is to not overuse these terms and never use them incorrectly.

Contretemps should be used to mean "an awkward or embarrassing little situation." Most dictionaries define it more broadly, as "an unfortunate accident; some bad luck; a hitch." My recommendation is to use it only in its narrowest sense. Going into a job interview with your fly open is a contretemps. It's a small embarrassment. Walking across the street and getting hit by a speeding car is "bad luck," but not a contretemps. Discovering that the restaurant you planned to take your girlfriend to is closed is "a hitch," but not a contretemps. Accidentally calling your girlfriend by your wife's name is a contretemps. Getting hit by a stray punch in a barroom brawl is "unfortunate." Double-dating with a couple that likes to French kiss in front of you is a contretemps.

In the Huffington Post, film critic John Farr described a contretemps ("an awkward situation") in the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
Making a contact sport out of trading hurtful barbs, George and Martha snap at each other constantly in front of their stunned guests. As the night wears on, the bitter contretemps between the squabbling pair gets progressively uglier-especially when blowsy, gin-soaked Martha mentions the couple's "son."

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