Daily Archives: October 20, 2010

Are Latin words bad?

Eric Koch, in his lively blog “Sketches,” posted the following snippet from a talk by William Zinsser to foreign students learning English – he’s talking about words derived from Latin:

In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion – like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!) – or that end in -ent – like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture – somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

The post has already accumulated a variety of comments, some of which inveighing against those heavy, unnecessary Latin words. I added my own comment, which I will also post here, because it’s germane to my blog and why shouldn’t I? Here’s what I said:

Fix and money also come to us from Latin: fix from fixus, from figere, and money from moneta. Those who are interested in knowing which of the words we use come from Latin (or Greek) rather than from Germanic roots, and many of them do, can easily check for free at, for instance, dictionary.com. (Just in that last sentence, for instance: interest, use, easy, check, and instance all come from Latin, some by way of French or Spanish.)

I generally agree with clarity and straightforwardness in language, but one of the glories of a complex language with a large and somewhat redundant vocabulary is that we can set the tone and attitude quite easily and distinctively, and make it clear in a few words what genre a text is situating itself in. We don’t want to toss out the big words altogether; we just don’t want to hide behind them. We should use them judiciously, not reflexively.

And at the very least, any sort of nativist attitude towards English usage is a non-starter (and not just because nativist also comes from Latin). Although our most basic function words, and most words for the most basic things, are from English’s Germanic roots, no less than 80% of our general vocabulary comes from other languages, especially Latin (often via other romance languages) and Greek. It behooves a person who wishes to make pronouncements and prescriptions for a language to know whereof he or she is speaking. To which end I offer a quick course in the subject: An appreciation of English: A language in motion.

And, incidentally, not all the stuffy words are Latin – behoove and whereof are both straight from Old English, for example – and (as we have already seen) not all of the plain-sounding words aren’t. But what William Zinsser was really talking about is derived abstract nominalizations. Which is a separate matter from the Latin-versus-English issue.

Incidentally, one language that has managed generally to keep its word stock “native” is Icelandic. When a new word is needed for something – the automobile or the computer, for instance, both of which use Latin words in English (car also has a Latin source) – they have a sort of national debate about the right word to use; suggestions are made mainly on the basis of adaptations and syntheses of other Icelandic words, and ultimately one prevails: in the cases in question, bill for an automobile and talva for a computer (formed by a merger of an adapted word used for “electricity” and a name of a mythical prophetess, if memory serves).