or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I got an e-mail the other day from an acquaintance--

Don't we have a better word in English for something between "friend" and "stranger"? "Acquaintance" seems almost Victorian in its distance, but distance is exactly the issue, because I've never met this person: we've exchanged a bunch of e-mails and did a fragrance swap. "Friend" won't do, "acquaintance" doesn't really work for me. What else is there? I've checked the thesaurus and everything falls wide of the mark. Yet another shortcoming of the English language: I'm quite sure other tongues have words for such a thing.

--who remarked on a reference I had made on my other blog to a scent that smells mostly of hot tar. By way of illustration, I had used a picture of the La Brea Tar Pits, about which he had this to say:

...and coincidentally, when you posted that picture of The La Brea Tar Pits (do you speak Spanish? It means The The Tar Tar Pits) we were there.

I don't speak Spanish, and I had never really thought about what "La Brea" means. When it's all spelled out like that, it does look silly, but of course any language is going to take foreign names and naturalize them, so that sort of thing is going to happen. There's probably a language out there that refers to The CN Tower and attaches the definite article to it in some way. I wouldn't be a bit surprised. (English does this in other languages, too: we always say "the hoi polloi", even though "hoi" means "the" in Greek.)

Foreign borrowings exist in various states of naturalization. Sometimes we'll take a French word and leave the accent marks in place: "résumé" is an obvious example, though we leave the accents in place only because it usefully distinguishes the word from the verb "resume". (Some people use only one of the accents, usually the second one. I say, all or nothing, bub.) Most of the time, though, we'll dispense with the accents altogether, because we scarcely ever use them in English: when was the last time you saw the phrase "a la mode" spelled in the French manner with an accent over the first word, "à la mode"? Have you, in fact, ever seen it in use? The accent isn't written and isn't needed, because the phrase is indisputably English (and with a remarkably specific meaning: "served with a scoop of ice cream on top"). Same with German "Gemütlichkeit" (not readily translatable into English, which is why we took their word, used to describe a place which is cozy and in which one feels accepted and at home), which is sometimes seen in English, but doubly Anglicized: we make the first letter lower-case, because German capitalizes all nouns and English doesn't, and we drop the umlaut, because in English those are used only to break a pair of vowels into its component sounds, as in "näive" or "Zöe", and hardly even then any more.

And so it is with that tar. "The La Brea Tar Pits", an entirely English place name despite the presence of Spanish words, no doubt sounds very silly to those who speak Spanish and English both, and to people who really, really care that every single element of the language make perfect sense (i.e. people even pickier than I am). To the rest of us, it's just the name of the place, and it makes perfect sense.


Post a Comment

<< Home