Consign ‘Dossier’ to the Round File

PUBLISHED: February 20, 2018

Today I am releasing a dossier about a word that is driving many of us absolutely crazy. If you can’t tell what the word is from the preceding sentence, you haven’t been watching three or four hours of cable news each day like a normal person.

"Dossier," borrowed from the French, entered the English lexicon around 1880. Our ancestors were pretty much tired of saying it by about 1887—although it later became a staple in B movies. Then, in 2016, a real-life British ex-spy named Christopher Steele wrote a series of 17 memos about Russia and Donald Trump.

Fearing that his work would get little or no publicity if titled "The Steele Report" or "The Steele Memos" or "The Steele Papers," the marketers shrewdly called his notes a "dossier." With that, the FBI, the media and Google’s search engine all went into spasmodic overdrive.

Just the other day Tucker Carlson delivered a commentary on Fox News Channel titled "Dirty Dossier." He called Steele’s work "stupid" and said it "reads like a parody of a badly written spy novel." Mr. Carlson managed to say the word "dossier" 14 times in four minutes. Try doing that. "Dossier" is one of those words that sound OK the first few times you say them, but by the 14th time your tongue hurts and your diction deteriorates.

This is a common problem Americans have with French terms. For instance, "amuse-bouche," which literally means "mouth amuser." Restaurants use the term to refer to a little taste of something. But imagine if Mr. Trump had a state dinner and for days after the event Gloria Borger and David Axelrod couldn’t stop saying amuse-bouche on CNN.

For me—and now, alas, you after reading this far—"dossier" is one of those words you can’t get out of your head. The Power Thesaurus website lists 180 synonyms for "dossier," including "file," "documents" and "file of documents." But don’t try telling that to Wolf Blitzer or Rachel Maddow. Mr. Steele’s papers are a "dossier," and that’s all there is to it.

Realizing that you can find just about anything on Amazon, I looked into buying a dossier. Turns out there is a nifty "memory hardware album" for $14.95 called a "Magnetic Dossier." There’s also a "Cigar Dossier" for $32.95 and "The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook" priced at $34.95.

You can also buy a Kindle edition of the original BuzzFeed version of the Steele Dossier—all 40 pages of it—for $1.49. A "verified purchaser" on Amazon who goes by the name "hiredkiller" gave the dossier just one star. His full review: "I chose one star because there is nothing here of any interest. Everything in this inflation has already been on the news."

Five shoppers found the review "helpful." For my part, I give Mr. Killer a rave for selecting "inflation" as a synonym in order to avoid repeating the word "dossier."

Finally, my research shows that the late 19th century was a big time for importing words from France. Seems that around the same time "dossier" entered our language, the French also gave us the word "brassiere." I’m eager to see how many times Tucker Carlson will say it in discussing the media’s heavily hyped Stormy Daniels Dossier.

(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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