The Language Perfectionist: Lend Me a Word

Last year, I traveled to a small town in Canada to attend a theatrical festival. About noon one day, I entered an appealing restaurant.

“Would you like to be seated on our veranda?” asked the hostess. “Did you know,” I replied, “that the word veranda comes to us from Hindi, Portuguese, and Spanish?” I expected to be summarily booted out in return for my irrelevant comment, but she seemed genuinely fascinated by this fun fact.

English has been called a mongrel language. We use words from other languages all the time, often without realizing it. Linguists call these loanwords or borrowings. Here are just a few examples:

  • German: blitzkrieg (lightning war), doppelganger (lookalike), ersatz (phony substitute), plus flak, kitsch, waltz, and even hamster.
  • French: avant-garde, camouflage, canard (lie or deception), debacle, frisson (shiver), garage, voyeur.
  • Russian: czar, glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring), ukase (edict).
  • Afrikaans: aardvark, commando, trek.

A variant of borrowing occurs when words from foreign tongues are not retained intact, as the above examples are, but are translated into English. These are called calques. One example is masterpiece, from the German Meisterstuck.

Appropriately enough, loanword is a calque… and calque is a loanword. The first is from the German Lehnwort, and the second from the French calquer, to trace or copy.

[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 that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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.