Readers know the term, “loanword” — a word lifted into English from another language. But, since we never return them, they should probably be called “usurped,” “adopted,” or, “stolen” words.
English has taken words from more than 120 languages, a process dating back to at least Viking times. We lifted about 2,000 Norse words including dirt, egg, skin, dry and window.
Since we’re masters at helping ourselves to other languages’ words, it’s surprising some people believe there’s a need to do exactly that. In April, reader Norm Gleywil, shared an article from Business Insider. Writer Rob Wile listed nine French expressions that “could help plug” gaps in English, “if we let it (happen).”
Wile’s list offers good examples of needless variants because his terms aren’t expressions most people are yearning to have.
He believes we need saloperie (the act of a jack-ass) and droit à l’oubli (the right of oblivion; the right to absolute privacy).
Presumably, the “act of a jack-ass” means “behaving like a jack-ass.” Any thesaurus offers several choices meaning precisely that: folly, idiocy, senselessness, indiscretion, and so on.
Saying, “the right to privacy” is no more awkward than saying, “le droit à l’oubli,” and the word-count is equal. Seemingly, the French term isn’t worth borrowing.
Wile isn’t alone in trying to foist new usage upon us. Many people invent words and then entice us to use them. Entire books of made-up words have been published. None has become a best-seller and few, if any, of the coined words have caught on.
The earliest such book, Burgess Unabridged: A Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, by Gelett Burgess, was published in 1914. Still earlier, in 1908, an article entitled, “Improvised Words,” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.
Oxford’s, Questions of English, devotes a chapter to this sort of thing saying, “Most words that people (make up) have very little life expectancy. Many fulfil no need, being alternatives for words long-established, or describing concepts so rare that we have never felt the lack.”
Word Fugitives, by Barbara Wallraff, is a 2006 book about “wanted words.” Wallraff, contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly, has also written the language column in the New York Times. She advises, “To become part of our standard vocabulary, a new word has to look old.” It shouldn’t jump out as unusual usage, but should be “unobtrusive.”
Loanwords seldom fit that description. When we borrowed Blitz during the Second World War, it was anything but unobtrusive. Blitz, used this way, is a shortening of der Blitzkreig (lightning war). Der Blitz means “lightning” in German.
Blitz demonstrates how easily and guiltlessly we borrow words. So, when Wile says we don’t “let” such borrowings happen, I’d suggest he’s out to lunch. When we really require a word, we either borrow it or invent it. Some invented words are great. Scofflaw, coined in 1924, is said to be the most successful made-up word of the 20th century.
The fact is, if we truly needed a better way to say, “the act of a jack-ass,” we’d take that expression from French, Chinese, Yiddish, or wherever.
We’re good at that.