“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” — James Nicoll 

The past couple of Sundays I have written about the mistakes and omissions I made while writing this column and about Washington, D.C.’s amazing Planet Word museum. So it only makes sense (to me, at least) that this time I should talk about the foreign origins of some of the words used in those two columns and others we all use.

The words I’ll be taking a look at are called “loanwords,” which are simply words that we’ve borrowed directly from other languages with little or no translation or modification.

We tend not to notice most of these words since we use them all the time without even considering their origins. You know, words including: pretzel, ballet, justice and pizza, which came to us from German, French, Latin and Italian respectively. But some such words still sound foreign to us, and those are the ones I’ll look at today, all of them from those same four languages.

We’ll begin with German, which gives us such words as blitzkrieg (“lightning war”), from which we get the football term blitz. (The reindeer names Donner and Blitzen mean “Thunder” and “Lightning” in German, by the way.)

And if tikes in kindergarten (which retains its German spelling and means “garden of children”) sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until it got stuck in your head, then you’d have an earworm, which comes from the German word “Ohrwurm” and, conveniently, is used to describe untranslatable words.


You might be feeling French if you committed the faux pas (“false step” or social blunder) of having failed to RSVP (“respondez s’il vous plait”) to a dinner invitation. (It is also a faux pas — or at least redundant — to write “Please RSVP” on an invitation, since the abbreviation translates to “respond if you please.”)

Once you get to the restaurant, you may have a sense of deja vu (“already seen”), but hopefully you quickly get over your uneasiness and enjoy a pre-meal hors d’oeuvre (“outside the work”) before your haute cuisine (fancy meal or literally “high cookery”) arrives.

During your private tete-a-tete (“head to head”) over dinner, you and your table mate might conclude that le mot juste (“exact word” or the most appropriate word or expression) to describe a recent attempted event is “coup d’etat” (“stroke of state” or a sudden violent seizure of power).

Meanwhile, people speaking Latin at the next table — hey, it could happen — might be members of an ad hoc (literally “to this,” or for a particular purpose) committee investigating sub rosa (done in secret) goings on. Their goal? To determine cui bono? (“to whom a benefit?”) from the quid pro quo (“something for something”) activities that have taken place. It could happen…

With the start of summer vacation, my thoughts turn to Italian words like dining al fresco (outside or “in the fresh”) on something that’s cooked al dente (“to the tooth” or still firm when bitten). But my favorite Italian words right now have to be “la dolce vita” and “dolce far niente” or “the sweet life” and “sweet doing nothing.” Oh, and “pizza.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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