A particularly potent bête noire (pet hate) for French language purists is the increased usage of ‘sur’ when people are describing their location or activity in a particular town or city.
The tic presents itself mostly in the spoken word. Someone might say, “Je travaille sur Paris” – translated as “I work in Paris”. What annoys the sticklers – and, of course, this includes old friends of this column, the Académie Française – is that the preposition ‘sur’ is plain wrong. It means ‘on top of’ or ‘above’ or even ‘on’, as in ‘to work on’.
“J’habite sur Bordeaux” (I live in Bordeaux), “je dors sur Toulouse” (I sleep in Toulouse), “je reste sur Lille” (I’m staying in Lille) – are all further examples of the jarring use of sur in this context. “Je travaille à Paris” or “J’habite à Paris” are the correct phrases to use.
However, there is one context when ‘sur’ is appropriate, and it even gets the Académie’s approval: it can “possibly be justified with a verb of movement, because of its dynamic connotation”, they say.
For example: “Je déménage sur Rennes” (I am moving to Rennes), with the ‘on’ here reminiscent of conquering troops marching ‘on’ Rome.
In short, the preposition “sur” can only convey an idea of position, superiority or domination, says the Académie. Check out the ‘Dire, ne pas dire’ (Say, don’t say) section of their website.
As for the bête noire in our story, its own origins in French date to the 18th century, when black cats were considered devilish in popular belief, with links to witchcraft. Once it would have been used to refer to one’s sworn enemy, but its implication has softened over time.