or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, May 23, 2005


I love the English language's omnivorous taste for other tongues' words. If we don't have a word for "the mutual relaxation of political tension towards another nation" and such a word presents itself from French as "détente" at a time when we might find such a word useful, then we snap it up. Perhaps, as in the case of that word and others such as "Gesundheit", we keep its pronunciation (and even sometimes any accent marks, as in "passé"); perhaps we alter it to conform to a likely English pronunciation, as was generally done with "apartheid" (often heard as "uh-PAR-thide", correctly pronounced "uh-PART-hate"). But whatever we do with the words once their in our sweaty grasp, we unquestioningly make them our own. What's particularly fascinating is that sometimes cross-pollination occurs: one language borrows a word from another language which, finding it useful in turn, borrows it right back.

An old French phrasal verb, "conter fleurette", meant "to whisper sweet nothings to" or "to attempt to seduce". This is a marvellous thing to have a word for, and so we snapped it up and transformed it into the verb "flirt". The French phrase gradually vanished from the language, but later they decided they might have a use for it after all, and so they simply took it right back from us in the form of the verb "flirter", using a standard French suffix, and also the noun form "un flirt", meaning "flirtation". (Then Italian borrowed those words from French, changing only the verb's suffix from "-er" to "-are".) I would like to note that the OED makes no mention of this etymology and www.answers.com merely says "Origin unknown", so there's a chance that it's a folk etymology; but I would also like to note that my French teacher confirmed the story a couple of months ago, so if it's untrue, it's untrue in both languages.

French also gave us the name of the game "tennis", through Middle English "tenyes" from the original French "tenez". (That word comes from the Latin "tenere", "to hold", frequently heard in English in such words as "tenacious" and "maintain".) Rather than try to translate the name of the game, the French simply took it back from us, and "le tennis" it is where French is spoken.

The common Japanese word "karaoke" means, as is relatively well known, "empty orchestra". What is less well-known is that the "-oke" half of the word is an abbreviated form of "okesutora", the Japanese phonetic rendering of the word "orchestra"; once they were done playing with it, we took it back, mysteriously transformed and newly useful.


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