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Foreign borrowing never stops
Jun 01, 2012


English owes its immense vocabulary to its wholesale adoption of words and phrases from other tongues, a practice reaching back into antiquity and continuing to this day.
We’ve lifted Old Norse words like saga from the early Vikings, Latin words such as charisma from the Romans, French words, including philosophy, from the Normans, and words such as monsoon from early Dutch traders and rift from the Danes.
This borrowing extends to every country absorbed into the British Empire, although many such words are so thoroughly assimilated only dedicated research unearths their origins.
The borrowing process goes on still even though it’s been a long time since England went about invading and dominating distant lands, and even longer since any country has invaded Britain itself. Oxford estimates as many as 8,000 loanwords have entered English in modern times — words from about 90 different countries.
Here are some words English took in during the 20th century:
• Aileron — hinged flap on a plane’s wing for controlling the ship’s balance. French.
• Al dente — description for pasta that isn’t overcooked. Italian.
• Delicatessen — shop selling cooked meats, salads, cheeses, etc. German.
• Fatwa — a ruling on Islamic Law issued by a Muslim religious expert. Arabic.
• Gung-ho — enthusiastic. Chinese. This expression was adopted by U.S. Marines as a slogan in the Second World War.
• Gutta percha — coagulated latex from certain Malaysian trees. Malaysian.
• Khaki — dull, brownish-yellow. Also, a woolen or twilled cotton fabric of that colour. Urdu, from Persian.
• As well as all the following: Embargo — Spanish; glasnost—Russian; harem — Turkish; hibachi — Japanese; hogan — Navajo; kayak — Innuit; mantra — Sanskrit; trek — Afrikaans; tundra — Lapp; ukulele — Hawaiian; pemmican — Cree; ombudsman — Swedish; sauna — Finnish; slalom — Norwegian; taboo — Tongan; tipi/tepee — Sioux; bagel — Yiddish; boondock — Tagalog; cabaret — Walloon and Old French; commando — Portuguese; safari — Kiswahili; wok — Chinese; bloc — Middle Dutch and Modern Low German.
Surprisingly, we still take classical Greek and Latin words into our modern lexicon. Some of these are scientific and won’t likely be used by people like you and me — the hoi polloi — but many are in general vocabulary.
Cursor is an example. From the Latin currere (to run), it first entered English in the mid-17th century when it meant, “a running messenger.” Then, it was applied to a part of the slide rule used in mathematics and surveying. Today, cursor primarily refers to “a moving indicator on a computer screen.” Nevertheless, it’s still used in connection with slide rules.
Hoi polloi is Greek for “the many.” In English, this phrase designates, “the majority; the masses; the rabble.” It’s unnecessary to say, “the” hoi polloi, as I did above, because hoi means “the” in Greek.
Many borrowings are surprising. For example, fellow is from the Arabic fellah, originally meaning “Egyptian peasant.” The slang term gaga (ga-ga) entered English in the early 20th century from French. In both languages it means, “crazy; foolish; senile).
As mentioned, some borrowing require research, but others are easily recognized as lifted from another language, e.g., tourniquet, spaghetti, Blitzkreig.
So the borrowing goes on, and English is the richer for it.