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Why You Can't Say 'Facebook' on French TV

France doesn't share the United States' approach to free speech. The French government exercises a comparatively strict control over language used in the media, and certain words - like Facebook and Twitter - are banned from use. It may seem draconian, but it's part of a law designed to protect consumers from sneaky advertising.

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France and Free Speech

The American notion of free speech is one some citizens take for granted. While saying the wrong thing publicly might lead to a backlash that puts your job in jeopardy (just ask that guy who played Kramer on Seinfeld), even the most disgusting hate speech is unlikely to result in legal action. This isn't the case in France, where certain types of hate speech are illegal. This is a particularly visible issue now, as fashion designer John Galliano is on trial in France for drunkenly hurling anti-Semitic and pro-Holocaust remarks at a bar patron in February, 2011. If convicted, Galliano could be sentenced to six months in prison and fined the equivalent of about $30,000.

Whether you think this action is just or not, this isn't something you'd be likely to see in the U.S. While many people in this country seem to misunderstand what the right to free speech means, it is highly unlikely that you will literally be put on trial for expressing even the most hateful opinions. The only legal way to prosecute hate speech in the U.S. is through a civil suit brought by an individual who will have to prove damages as a result of that speech. And this isn't where the difference between the two nations' approaches to language ends.

Q-Tip or Cotton Swab?

It's pretty common in the U.S. to exchange a brand name for a more generic description of an item. For example, when your friend asks you for a Kleenex, they aren't necessarily demanding a specific brand of disposable facial tissue. This may seem like more of an easy linguistic shortcut than a nefarious, underhanded attempt at branding - saying 'Band-Aid' is a lot shorter than 'adhesive bandage' - but it's the reason behind the French media ban on saying 'Facebook' and 'Twitter.'

France has laws in place that are designed to protect consumers from advertising in the form of referring to a product by its brand name. This is why saying 'Facebook' or 'Twitter' is not allowed. It's part of a law that applies to other instances in this area. Unfortunately, though, this move has drawn international criticism, and it isn't exactly popular in France.

A Twitter by Any Other Name...

Though this isn't another case of French government language overseers trying to artificially engineer the evolution of their language, it's still a hot topic. Critics of the move point out that calling specific social networks by their names is the best way to identify which network is being discussed. Additionally, there is the risk that a move like this can only feed stereotypes about French cultural snobbery and anti-American reticence.

Despite criticism, the rule seems set to stay in place for now. But it does raise an interesting issue that is food for thought no matter what legal climate your nation's language rests in. In the example of using a brand name to describe a certain product, like Q-Tip for cotton swab, it doesn't really matter what word you use. Whether you use the brand name or the generic description, you're talking about the same basic idea - a little wisp of cotton wrapped around both ends of a short stick. But with social networks, the issue is a bit more complex. Saying that something took place on 'a social network' doesn't tell the whole story. Unlike some other products, social networks really are best described by their brand names.

If you think Americans are too cavalier with adding new words to the collective language, consider the fact that the Oxford Dictionaries Online recently added slang like 'ZOMG' to its database.