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Merriam-Webster and the OED list only figurative senses of the word echelon (i.e. military formations and organizational ranks). Would it be incorrect to use it in the literal sense of the French word from which it derives (échelon) to refer to a tier on a physical structure?

Gardens had been planted on the upper echelons of the hotel's exterior.

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You could use it in an intentionally literal sense, but it would be understood figuratively regardless. Few would consider it in its literal French sense. If you were to italicize it, you could signal that it was meant to be understood as a French word, and then those who speak French would code it that way, but most speakers of English would still think you meant it figuratively and were merely emphasizing the word for idiosyncratic reasons.

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In fact, I would argue that in English, echelon does not mean a literal tier or level of a building. The fact that it does have that meaning in French is no more relevant than the fact that in Hungarian, bent means "inside". –  Marthaª Jan 7 '11 at 15:57
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@Martha "no more relevant than the fact that in Hungarian, bent means "inside""? None at all? Would a literal usage not be understood at least as a concrete application of the English word (as Robusto suggests), skipping the French step entirely? –  WAF Jan 7 '11 at 16:05
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@Martha: You are of course right that it doesn't have the literal sense in English, and that it should not be so used in ordinary writing. But to say that its French meaning has negligible relevance is a bit too strong, in my opinion. Granted, in most cases it would not be a good idea; but some readers will know the French word and understand the word play. [near-tautology] It depends on the audience and the desired effect. [/near-tautology] –  Cerberus Jan 7 '11 at 16:14
    
@WAF, @Cerberus: you can apply echelon to a building for poetic effect because its meaning (in English) includes the idea of layers, not because of what meaning it has or doesn't have in French. Sure, if you're writing for a bilingual audience, you can make some sort of bilingual pun based on the similarity between the two words (English echelon and French échelon), but this is no different than if I were to write to my cousins and make some sort of joke based on Hungarian/English bent. –  Marthaª Jan 7 '11 at 18:58
    
@Martha: Yeah okay, that's what I had in mind. I considered that many speakers of English might know some French... German, French, Latin, and Greek literature have historical connections with English literature, so that puns and references are somewhat more likely to come across than with other foreign languages. –  Cerberus Jan 7 '11 at 22:08
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