You can draw a line between the founder of the French Academy and the phrase éminence grise, and I think that is a delightfully unexpected tidbit.
Last week when I was reading an excerpt from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English, I mispronounced éminence grise (greeze) as éminence grise (grice), which is particularly annoying because I had actually looked up how to pronounce it. It turns out that although they are spelled the same way, the grise in éminence grise is a completely different word from grise alone, and éminence is pronounced the French way in this phrase. Thanks to Mark N. for pointing out the error.
The more interesting thing is that as I was following up on the phrase’s origin, I discovered that it’s related to a man known as Cardinal Richelieu, who was powerful in both the Catholic church and the French government in the early 1600s, and who created the French Academy—the body that aims to protect the French language.
You may have seen my short articles about them in the past because I find it fascinating that they try to legislate language by declaring that French people shouldn’t use English words such as e-mail, software, and ASAP and also that such a body has been in almost continuous existence since 1635, with the exception of a brief lapse related to the French Revolution.
Cardinal Richelieu was known as Éminence Rouge, the Red Eminence, because of his red cardinal’s robes. He had a close confidant and adviser named, Père Joseph, Father Joseph, who, because of his gray robes and close association with the Éminence Rouge, became known as the Éminence Grise, the Gray Eminence.
Eventually, the phrase éminence grise came to mean anyone who exerts unofficial or clandestine power. So when Ammon Shea wrote that Delcevare King was trying to continue his role as éminence grise of language, he was saying that King was trying to continue his role as an unofficial but important influencer of language.
“éminence grise.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, online version. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/grise (subscription required, accessed September 1, 2014).
“éminence grise. Oxford English Dictionary, online version. http://bit.ly/1pC0YBF (subscription required, accessed September 1, 2014).
Wikipedia contributors, "Cardinal Richelieu," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cardinal_Richelieu&oldid=623178887 (accessed September 2, 2014).
Wikipedia contributors, "François Leclerc du Tremblay," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fran%C3%A7ois_Leclerc_du_Tremblay&oldid=601522607 (accessed September 2, 2014).
Image of Cardinal Richeleiu courtesy of Shutterstock.