There’s a tradesman’s van that I pass in my neighborhood many mornings. On the side are painted these words:
Custom Interior Painting and Faux Professional Wallcoverings
Faux professional wallcoverings? From the moment I first saw this it nagged at me. Why should something simple like that get under my skin?
The individual words make perfect sense. Faux means false, fake, artificial; it came into English from the French over 300 years ago. Professional, of course, relates to a profession, and in this case indicates that we’re not dealing with an amateur. Wallcoverings indicates paint or paper, or perhaps wood paneling, or to make the historical stretch, tapestry or other fabrics.
But used all together in this way, the adjective faux becomes confusing. Which part is faux? The professionalism? We wouldn’t want to advertise that. The wallcoverings? Well, if they’re faux coverings, does that mean they’re not really covering anything? Or is this an emperor’s new clothes situation, where we pretend there’s a covering that isn’t really there (because it’s faux)?
Of course, the intent of this combination of words was clear. I’m not deliberately obtuse, so I understood that the craftsman meant to convey his skill with faux finishes. But the use of the words in this way is distracting to anyone who stops to think about it, even for a moment. That’s not what you want when you’re trying to communicate a message, especially an advertising message. You want clarity with no confusion or hesitation.
The first real problem here is that faux coverings is a jargon phrase: it’s specialist language that loses its meaning when used outside of the specialty. The second problem, perhaps not obvious at first glance, is that faux in this sense isn’t an adjective, but a noun.
In the profession, it’s entirely clear what is meant. Faux doesn’t mean false; it’s a catch-all term for a wide variety of finishes, most often custom made. Faux finishes (often simply shortened to faux) are finishes, usually painted, that make one material appear to be something else: metal, or stone, or wood, or some other surface.
It’s not a new technique: if you know the term trompe l’oeil (probably from around 1600 in the French, entering English in the late 1800s) you’ll understand the idea immediately. It’s painting something to “fool the eye,” and although the term might be only a few centuries old, the technique and the idea go back to antiquity. There are many examples. Marbleizing, or marbling, is a painting technique, very popular in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, in which wooden fixtures were treated to look like marble (there are some nice examples here, but no photos). Graining is a technique to give a surface the appearance of an expensive wood. Marmorino is a plastering technique that gives the appearance of polished stone. Other techniques exist. All could be called simply faux in the trade.
The use of faux (as an individual or collective noun) to stand in for all sorts of decorative finishes is very new as far as I can tell. The transition from specialist jargon to colloquial use (if it’s actually happening) is so recent that this definition hasn’t yet made it into any of the mainstream dictionaries. Merriam-Webster and American Heritage only recognize faux as an adjective. OED isn’t much better, listing only an obscure noun sense from anatomy and botany.
But what of the odd phrasing that started this off? How should it be resolved? Should it be changed at all?
My editorial advice would be a firm “yes.” The problem here is that while faux has a recognized meaning in the trade, if the average person knows the word at all he or she will think of it in the adjective sense, leading to the kind of confusion I discussed above. It’s potentially a good example of a skunked word struggling for a clear identity as it transitions from one meaning to another.
A better suggestion for the lettering on the side of that van might be “Professional Faux Finishes” or a simple inversion of the first two words, to “Professional Faux Wallcoverings.” The potential for confusion still exists, but it’s been diminished. Another solution might be “Professional Faux Treatments.” That word, treatment, by all appearances, is accepted language in the design professions for this kind of thing, so it would be at least as clear.
In your own writing, strive to be true, not faux. Decorative techniques can accomplish wonderful things, but no amount of marmorino or marbleizing can substitute for quality, authentic writing.