Years ago, I heard a story on NPR in which people from every financial situation, from the poorest to the wealthiest, were asked about how they felt about their financial status. Did they feel financially secure? Did they feel rich?
They all said no. Even the wealthy people said, “Well, we don’t take that many vacations, we only have two houses, we buy clothes from J. Crew and the Lands End catalog, and…” And really, these people did not feel wealthy. They were relatively new to money, and you could tell there was a constant comparison with social peers taking place.
I think of this story when I see the word ton. I’m always pleased when authors put “ton” or “bon ton” on the lips of characters we aren’t meant to like. I like when it’s used to explain what someone is not, e.g., “not good ton.” It’s a value judgment. It smacks of a slightly-older parvenu passing judgment on a more recent parvenu. Or a country girl ready to experience the excitement of the big city, thinking that just by going there and being seen, she’ll be part of something bigger and grander than she really is. We all know how that turns out.
It’s not a word that someone completely at peace with their place in the universe needs to use. “Ton” says that someone whose values are skewed is judging someone else, and that’s all kinds of ironic.
Because if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. If you have to consult an etiquette guide to know where the fork goes, you don’t know the rules of social engagement, not deep in your bones. If you have to give something a fancy French name, then you’re fooling yourself as to the importance of what you’re doing. Why use “ambiance” when you can use “atmosphere?” Why use “ennui” when you can use “bored?” Why use “inter alia” instead of “among others?”
Unless you need the specificity that only a foreign word can give you. Schadenfreude, anyone?
Ton: should not be capitalized unless it starts a sentence. It’s a French common noun. You can make a good argument it does not have to be italicized because it is a common word in Regencies and because it appears in English-language dictionaries. (CMOS 7.49 & 7.52)
I would counter it should be in italics because it is meant to stick out, to show that a character is deliberately choosing a French word instead of an English one. And it signals to readers that we should be judging the judgy character.
(Also, we don’t want to confuse it with a measurement of weight.)
- Writers beware: parvenu use in English dates to 1802 as a noun, but about 50 years earlier in French; adjective use not until 1828. Good old “upstart” goes all the way back to the 1550s. Arriviste is dangerous: not til 1901.↵
- One of my grandmothers was a stickler for etiquette. We would have table manners drills before she visited. She grew up dirt poor, but was a glamorous adult who knew her way around a tea service. I have her copy of Emily Post — she stuck to it religiously, because it was emblematic of where she wanted to be in life (like ton).↵
- I am so very guilty of this one…inter alia. But here’s the thing: I trot out legal Latin when I’m deliberately being snarky. (Which is not good practice, and is why I do an anti-snark editing pass on all my legal writing.)↵