The old joke is that the French don’t have a word for entrepreneur. The French, in they were to be so churlish, could rightly point out that the English do not have a word or phrase to substitute for vis-ā-vis. When it is used it means in relation to.
When the phrase first appeared in English print in the middle of the 18th century, it had two distinct meanings, the one that we are familiar with today and one which was a literal translation of the French. Both senses can be attributed to the 4th Earl of Orford, better known as Horatio Walpole, a prolific letter writer, novelist, son of the first British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and builder of Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, a building which started the revival of the Gothic style of architecture.
In his Letter to George Montague, written in July 1753, Walpole wrote, “he was walking slowly in the beau milieu of Brentford town, without any company, but with a brown lap-dog with long ears, two pointers, two pages, three footmen, and a vis-à-vis following him”. It seemed a rather large entourage for a stroll, but that must have been the fashion for a man about town, even if it was Brentford. The vis-à-vis referred to was a type of carriage, a two-seater, in which the occupants faced each other.
This type of carriage is still made by the Amish communities and is often the preferred form for conveying tourists on horse-drawn sight-seeing trips in towns and cities. Barouche, landau and Berline carriages all had vis-ā-vis seating and some of the earliest motor cars followed suit until all passengers facing the same direction became the norm.
By extension the term was used as a preposition to describe any set of circumstances in which one person, or thing, was facing another, for example at a table or when dancing. Mary Berry, not that one, used it to denote the position of dancers in her Social Life in England and France: From the French Revolution in 1789, to that of July 1830, published in 1831; “it seems perfectly indifferent to them who is their via-ā- vis”.
It’s antonym, which gained currency in the 19th century, was dos-ā- dos, which meant having your back to your partner or the person in the same vehicle or duellers. A bastardisation of the term is used today in the world of square dancing, I have no personal experience of this, when the caller shouts out do-se-do or dosey doe. There are other variant spellings, but they all mean that you have to turn around and present your back to the other.
The more familiar meaning and use of the phrase also appeared in an epistle penned by the prolific letter-writer, Horatio Walpole, this time to Richard Bentley, written in November 1755. There he wrote, “what a figure would they make vis-ā-vis his manly vivacity and dashing eloquence”. It can be used as a noun, adjective or adverb and appears a bit flowery, affected and a tad pedantic when used, particularly in speech. It generally makes its appearance in newsprint and academic treatises.
Next time I jump into a taxi, though, I shall make sure I am sitting vis-ā-vis to my fellow passenger. I will know what I mean, even if they don’t!