The Language Perfectionist: It’s Foreign to Me

In your reading, you may occasionally encounter a word or expression from another language.

Some writers ostentatiously drop in such words to flaunt their erudition. But foreign-language words are used for good reasons. Although the English language offers us a remarkably wide choice of words, some concepts are better expressed in other languages, especially when no precise equivalent exists in English. In addition, an imported locution is often more concise and stylistically superior.

Here is an A-to-Z glossary – by no means comprehensive – of such words and phrases. You might occasionally find opportunities to use them. But even if you never do, you won’t be in the dark when you read or hear them.

• a fortiori (ah for-tee-OR-ee), Latin. All the more. Example: “I said I wouldn’t clean the garage and my reasons apply a fortiori to the house.”


• casus belli (KAH-zus BELL-ee or KAY-sus BELL-eye), Latin. An act or event that provokes war. Often used metaphorically, e.g., “That new book on evolution is sure to be a casus belli.”

• l’esprit de l’escalier (les-PREE duh les-kal-YAY), French. Literally, “the wit of the staircase” – the clever retort you think of only after it’s too late to utter it and impress everyone. Interestingly, German has the identical metaphor: Treppenwitz. (I often find occasion to use this one!)

• nostalgie de la boue (NOS-tal-jee duh lah BOO), French. Literally, “yearning for the mud.” An attraction to, or perverse compulsion for, the unworthy, crude, or degrading.

• schadenfreude (SHAHD-en-froi-duh), German. When a once-esoteric word is discussed on The Simpsons and becomes the title of a song in a long-running Broadway musical (Avenue Q), you know it’s hit the big time. Literally, “shameful joy” – taking pleasure in the misfortune of another person. Handy!

• Weltanschauung (VELT-ahn-shou-oong), German. Literally, “world view.” A philosophy of the universe or of life.

• Zeitgeist (TZITE-giste), German. Literally, “spirit of the time.” The characteristic attitude or mood of a specific period or generation. Useful for conversations about politics, society, and the state of mankind.

A few stylistic points: When used in writing, foreign-language words and expressions should be italicized. In German, nouns are capitalized – and that style is usually retained when the words are imported into English text. Exception: schadenfreude. This word has become so common in English that it’s now lowercased.

If you find this subject appealing, you might enjoy They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases, by Howard Rheingold. It’s filled with interesting foreign-language expressions, some frequently used in English and some that probably never will be.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.