or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Watching Paint Dry

As I've mentioned before, one of the great things about multilingual packaging, of the sort we get here in Canada (with its two official languages) or the European kind with eight or a dozen versions of the same words, is that you get to see things you might not ordinarily have seen: how different languages treat the same idea, or where words in English unexpectedly come from, or even, if you're lucky, an amusing typo.

Yesterday at work, since we're gearing up for inventory, I was tasked with counting the overstock paint, the stuff up overhead that the inventory company isn't going to be counting (because they only tackle the stuff that's actually on the shelves). It wasn't pleasant work: up and down a ladder with many small but heavy boxes, taking a hundred or more little bottles out of the box, scanning them, counting them, reversing the procedure.... But I made up for it with a great typo and an etymology I hadn't known before, so it's all for the better.

One package of small containers of metallic paints had a bronze-coloured paint, and the label on the back read


which is the same word in English, French, and Spanish, except that, obviously, they've misspelled the English version. Here's the thing, though: a spellchecker, assuming they bothered to use one (not a safe assumption these days), wouldn't have caught it, because "bonze" is a word in English. I know you'd never think it to look at it, because it really doesn't seem like an English word, but it actually is. It means "a Buddhist monk". Seriously! We got it from the French, who got it from Portuguese (they spelled it "bonzo"), who, once being a great seafaring people (they colonized Brazil, among other places), had much earlier contact with Japan than the English did, landing there in 1543. "Bonso" was the Japanese version, meaning "ordinary priest", and "bonze" entered English not fifty years later, which, I think, is a remarkably rapid transmission of a word you wouldn't think would be that crucial to any of the tongues involved except the language of origination.

Another multilingual label I saw yesterday was for a bottle of paint called, in English, "Thicket". (It's a dark mossy green.) I didn't bother recording the Spanish translation, but the French version was "Bosquet", which grabbed me because it is clearly the origin, or at least the relative, of another little-used but still active English word, "bosky". (I think the British get more use out of "bosky" than North Americans do, or at least I've only ever seen the word in British texts, most memorably in a cartoon by Posy Simmonds.) "Bosquet" is a noun in French: "bosky", from "bosk-" (more on that in a second) plus the adjectival suffix "-y", means "covered with shrubs and small trees: thicketed".

In fact, "bosquet" also appears in English; it's pronounced "bosket", which also is an English word, a testament to the late sixteenth century, when people spelled things as they pronounced them and also grabbed words willy-nilly from whatever source came to hand. "Bosquet" comes from Italian "boschetto", "little bush", from Latin "boscus", meaning, of course, "bush".

"Boscus" also entered other Germanic languages as "bosk" or "busk"; one of the variants of this is Dutch "bosch", and this is why in English we say "bush" and not "busk" or something else.


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