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.]
  • John F. Tashjian

    Mr. Hauptman:

    Many thanks for this article on loanwords. When I had taken three semesters of Arabic at my local community college, the instructor mentioned the number of loanwords (although I suspect that I might want to put that label in quotation marks) come from Arabic…and even Pashto (examples would include: “algebra”, “algorithm”, “alcohol”, “lilac”, “jackal”, and “giraffe”).

    So, who says that you can’t learn something new every day?

    Linguistically Yours,
    John F. Tashjian