Tag Archives: loan words

Linguistic invasion?

My latest piece for TheWeek.com looks at “foreign” words that have come to be important in our political and military English, and how they got there:

Linguistic invasion! The foreign influence of English’s political and military words

My next article will be about annoying noises people – adults, even – make and should stop making. Do you have any favourites? Let me know today or tomorrow if you can!

Where English got all those English words other languages borrowed

In my latest article for TheWeek.com, on the changes that happen to English words when they are “borrowed” into other languages (“How foreign languages mutate English words”), I cite about three dozen words that other languages have borrowed from English and changed some way. But what I don’t mention is how those words got into English in the first place.

What, you didn’t think they just appeared fully formed in English from nowhere, did you?

Here’s the real truth: We did to other languages as other languages then did unto us. Many of our stolen nestlings are actually changelings. Here’s where we got each of the words from:

weekend: from week + end (obviously), which come from Old English wice and ende, which in turn come from Proto-Germanic, as Old English itself did

baseball: base from French bas, from Latin basis; ball from Old English ball

thrill: from Old English þyrlian, which meant ‘penetrate’ and came from a word for ‘hole’ that is the source of the tril in nostril

ballpoint pen: we’ve already covered ball; point from Old French point and pointe, both from Latin pungere ultimately; pen from Old French penne ‘feather’, from Latin penna

corner: from Old French corniere, from Latin cornua, ‘horn, point’

screwdriver: screw from Middle French escroue, which may have been borrowed from Germanic languages; driver from Old English drifan

bath: from Old English bæð

parlor: from Old French parleor, from parler ‘speak’

stadium: from Latin, which got it from Greek stadion; in both cases it referred to a race track and a unit of distance (like calling a track a “quarter-mile”)

medicine: from Latin medicina

brilliant: from French, which got it from Italian and ultimately from Latin beryllus ‘beryl, precious stone’

office: from Latin officium, ‘service, duty, ceremony’

blouse: the source of this one is actually uncertain; it may come from French or Provençal, perhaps from a word for ‘wool’

doctor: ultimately from Latin doctor, ‘teacher’

orange: by way of various languages, from Arabic naranj, which got it from Persian narang, which got it from Sanskrit naranga. It may well be that Tamil did not get it from English – this is what my research source indicated, but I am coming to have second thoughts about that, what with Tamil being so close to the home of Sanskrit and all.

chocolate: from Nahuatl (Aztec) xocolatl ‘bitter water’

microphone: an English invention from Greek parts: mikros ‘small’ and phoné ‘sound’

brandy: shortened from brandewine, from Dutch brandewijn ‘burnt wine’

cigarette: from French, a diminutive form of cigare, which French got from Spanish cigarro

calf: from Old English cealf

pig: presumably from Old English, though it doesn’t show up in any extant Old English texts (adult pigs were called swine)

nervous: from Latin nervosus, from nervus ‘nerve, sinew’

late: from Old English læt

anonymous: from Latin anonymus, from Greek anonymos

handy: formed in Middle English from hand, which comes from Old English, from Proto-Germanic, etc.

bodybag: body from Old English bodig ‘torso’; bag from Early Middle English bagge, probably from Old Norse baggi

salary man: salary ultimately from Latin salarium ‘salt money’; man from Old English, unchanged

one piece: one from Old English an; piece from Old French, probably from Gaulish (a Celtic language)

front glass: front from Old French front ‘forehead, brow’, from Latin frontem; glass from Old English glæs

open car: open from Old English, unchanged; car from Latin carrum, carrus referring to a Celtic two-wheeled war chariot, taken from the Gaulish word karros

gown: from Old French goune, from Late Latin gunna ‘leather garment, hide’

father: from Old English fæder

washing day: washing from wash (of course) from Old English wascan; day from Old English dæg

smoking: from Old English smoca

So out of 42 source words, 18 came from Old English (and Old English got them from Anglo-Saxon, which got them from Proto-Germanic, etc.), while 20 came from French and/or Latin, and the rest from elsewhere. But, with the exception of pure inventions, every word that came from some language came into that language from somewhere else – an older version of the language, perhaps, which got it from a language that evolved into that language, and so on back, or perhaps a different language again. Words mutate and evolve. As we can see.

Scandinavian words we say differently

My latest article for TheWeek.com is up. My editor has given it a funny title – as one commenter points out, it’s more like “The strange English pronunciations of common Nordic words,” but the title on the article is

The strange Scandinavian pronunciations of common English words

I hope you enjoy it!

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).