Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

French and English have been tied together since William the Conqueror made French the language of royalty in England. Traces of that linguistic shotgun marriage persist. For example, when the peasants fetch the beast from the barnyard, it’s pig, cow and sheep, but by the time Monsieur sees it spiced and steaming on the table, it’s pork, beef, and mutton. This low-rent/high-rent juxtoposition can be striking, as with house and mansion, horseplay and chivalry, freedom fries and french fries, and so on.

Now sit back and enjoy as our very own Star Chamber Language Maven (quick: maven… what language is that from?) Alan Kennedy regales you with still more language yarns, this time on borrowed words in English.


Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

by Alan Kennedy

Linguists use the term “borrowed” to refer to words that come into one language from a second, and get used frequently enough that they become like a first language word. As an example – we don’t really feel like we are speaking Swahili when we say we went on a safari (even though that is a word borrowed from Swahili; it means “journey”). You can often tell that a word has been borrowed from another language because the spelling seems non-English (e.g. tsunami, gesundheit, déjà vu) – but sometimes the non-English origin is not as evident.

When I first mentioned the linguistic notion of “borrowed words” to my wife Karen, she pointed out that it’s kind of a stupid term, because the language users are not planning to give the word back, nor have the originators been left without the word. [Queen Elizabeth to the President of Tanzania: “thanks awfully for letting us use the word safari. It has been ever so useful, but we’re quite done with it now, you may have it back”.]

Similarly, another term for this phenomenon, “loan words” is inaccurate. [We like saying karaoke, and we refuse to give it back to Japan, goddammit! Take baseball in exchange. You’re welcome.]

Nevertheless, linguists use the term “borrowed word” or “loan word” this way, and it is a useful concept, despite the misnomer.

The term borrowing is not usually applied to words with roots from other languages (like Latin and Greek). It refers more to words that not only didn’t come from Old English (a Germanic family language) but which have been taken, whole hog, from some other language and eventually find their way into English dictionaries. Sometimes the words are borrowed just as they are, and sometimes they are modified in spelling or pronunciation to make them more “English-like”. Let’s take cocktails as an example. Vodka comes to us directly from Russian, водка, pronounced quite similarly in that language, and letter-for-letter transliterated into English letters. Whisky, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic word uisge which means “water” and is pronounced “oosh-kyuh”. (I will make no jokes here about how Scots drink/consider/treat whisky like water, in deference to my hard-working immigrant ancestors).

The language from which English has borrowed the most, by far, is French. A quick glance at a selection of fairly common words which we all know, and which are in the dictionary, makes the case:

adjectives nouns expressions
petite rendezvous debris bon voyage c’est la vie
blasé ballet entrepreneur bon appetite double entendre
gourmet debut mirage déjà vu en masse
beige cliché memoir en route ménage à trois
macabre entourage coup faux pas tour de force
unique genre entrée avant-garde film noir
chic ensemble buffet au contraire carte blanche
risqué> encore protégé cul-de-sac à la carte
sautéed niche boutique encore! nouveau riche
brusque chauffer mystique maître d’ savoir faire

… and this is just a partial list. Note that in almost every case, we English speakers are not pronouncing these words using usual English pronunciation rules. No one rhymes “buffet” or “chalet” with “get” by mistake (or “Chevrolet” for that matter); no one rhymes “corsage” or “sabotage” with “luggage”. We know these French rules so well, that they have become almost like alternative English pronunciation rules. Why do we English speakers borrow so much from French? Well, the Norman Conquest of England has a lot to do with it. And besides that, look at a map – France is England’s close neighbor. In that situation, linguistic borrowing frequently results.

Like all languages, English has borrowed many food words. The reason is perhaps self-evident. Which is easier to say: “I like sliced raw fish placed atop portions of sticky vinegared rice” or “I like sushi”? If people in some foreign locale have created an awesome dish with many ingredients or a specific recipe, it’s convenient to just take their word. Like any other words, some food words are borrowed fully (spaghetti, croissant, baklava) and some are modified a bit as they come into English (pretzel comes from the German bretzl; saffron from the Arabic زعفرانza’faran“). Because food words are so culturally rooted, English speakers have a sense that that they are using borrowed words when they say things like shish kebab (Turkish), smorgasbord (Swedish) or dim sum (Cantonese).

For non-food words, English speakers (according to my informal poll) tend to be less clear about where a loan word has come from. I’m not talking about obvious ones like karaoke or boomerang or aloha. I’m thinking more about words like cobra (Portuguese), robot (Czech), and boondocks (Tagalog). Even if you know a word is a loan word, you may not be able to guess which language. Can you guess where we get the words maven, chimpanzee, or yacht? Give yourself a minute.

O.K., the answers are Yiddish, Bantu (Southern Africa), and Dutch. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. This stuff is really not considered common knowledge.

Native American Indian languages have contributed many words – not just in place names, but in words that seeped into American English and then became part of English at large. Aside from the culturally rooted terms like moccasin, teepee and tomahawk that we all tend to know, there are many words for animals (e.g. chipmunk, moose, coyote, possum, raccoon, jaguar, cougar) and foods (e.g. pecan, squash, persimmon, avocado) that English speakers did not likely know about until they came to the Americas. Well-known concept words from native American languages include totem (Ojibwa), kayak (Inuit) and pow-wow (Narragansett).

Here’s a little story using borrowed words. Take minute to read it and, if you want, underline words that you think probably came into English directly from another language.

I’m going on vacation next month, and this time I’m really gung-ho to head northward to satisfy my wanderlust. I have visions of cruises in and out of icy fjords, maybe stopping to sled across the tundra. I’m staying in an ice hotel – which even has an indoor health center; I can’t imagine a sauna in an igloo! The last trip I took was a fiasco, really a catastrophe. We went to Bali, thinking it would be a relaxing, angst-free time. The brochure for our resort showed guests in turquoise silk pajamas, eating caviar, shopping in colorful outdoor bazaars and feeding orangutans and giraffes. The reality was a run-down place which bordered a kind of jungle canyon. We had a feeling there was something less than kosher about the place as soon as we drove up. For one thing, it was covered with graffiti. The little kiosk which sold shampoo and things was always closed. Our bungalow was tiny; the bed was more like a futon with a saggy mattress. The room was stuffy but we couldn’t go out onto our patio to get a breeze because the weather seemed to veer between monsoon, typhoon and tornado the entire time.

Ready? here’s the answer:

Word Language Origin
gung-ho, typhoon, silk Mandarin
wanderlust, angst German
cruise Dutch
fjord Norwegian
tundra Russian
sauna Finnish
igloo Inuit (Eskimo)
fiasco, graffiti Italian
catastrophe Greek
turquoise, caviar, kiosk Turkish
bazaar Farsi
orangutan Malay
giraffe, mattress, monsoon Arabic
pajamas, jungle, shampoo, bungalow Hindi
kosher Hebrew
futon Japanese
patio, breeze, canyon, tornado Spanish

I leave you with this final thought: hakuna matata.

No, that saying was not an invention of the Disney Corporation. It’s real Swahili language.

But you knew what it meant, didn’t you?

12 thoughts on “Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?”

  1. Ned,
    You hit the whisky / water connection (and spelled whisky the way God intended, too!), but you missed the vodka / water connection! Ask our Russian friends about that.

  2. yes, it’s true – vodka means something like “little water” in Russian, right?

  3. So my question is somewhat bellicose. When it comes to war, historically, are more words “borrowed” by the victors from cultures/languages on the losing side of a war – or vice-versa? I can think of many instance where Americans English has borrowed Japanese, German, Native American and Spanish words. But where’s the Vietnamese?

  4. Bruce, I tried to think about your question … but I drank too many kamikazes last night and got blitzed, so I hit the hammock and took a siesta. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be a little more gung ho.

    OK, that last one was Chinese, but that was as close as I could get.

  5. Awkward when you don’t know which set of pronunciation rules to use. Funny story…

    (Background: At many Catholic Masses, there’s a Mass intention, whereby a Mass is offered on behalf of a particular person. Usually deceased, and usually, **the deceased’s family makes a special effort to attend that day.**)

    I was the cantor at our parish church. One of my responsibilities is to read the intention at the beginning of the Mass. Later, the lector says that name again. Finally, the priest says the name.

    Five minutes before mass, I look at the intention. It’s for “Guy Moreau.” (Last name chosen at random, because I can’t remember it, but it *was* French.) Great. I run back to the vestry, where the lector and priest are preparing, and ask them…

    “Do either of you know Guy Moreau, or his family?”
    “No, why, isn’t the mass intention for him today?”
    “Right. Is it Guh-eye, or Ghee?”
    Confusion, silence, then looks of horror…

    We decided to use Guh-eye.

  6. I showed this blog to a freiend of mine who is Hungarian. He asked where is goulash and paprika?

  7. Wonderful as always, but let’s not forget the influence of Old Norse. Long before the natives of Old Albion were conquered by the French, they were being subjugated by Viking masters, primarily in the northern and eastern parts of England 800-1000 AD. A great number of English words were imported from Old Norse at that time, e.g., berserk (bare shirt or possibly bear shirt=frenzied warrior), bylaw (village law), cast (kasta), egg (egg), husband (husbond, master of the house), knife (knifr), mire (myr, bog as in “no time to wallow in the mire) and, to tie it all together with the Norman conquest: the words Norman and Normandy, from Old Norse through Old French, meaning “northman”, due to Viking settlement in Normandy region. So I think it would be fair to say that also the French influence on English is indirectly attributable to the Vikings. More mead (from O.N. mjöd), anyone?

  8. Does anyone know where “dog” comes from? I know it’s probably not a borrowed word, but I remember reading somewhere that the background on that word is shady.
    Speaking of etymology, I just learned the other day that the English word “anger” comes from the ancient Zoroastrian destructive spirit Angra Mainyu…Happy belated Norooz!

  9. You’re right that “dog”, for such a basic word, has a famously obscure etymology. Usually a word so common will leave an etymological “trail” which linguists can follow, and the one for “dog”
    (which follows neither the “hound”-like words of the Germanic family, Gaelic’s “cu” or French “chien”) is not clear. You can check out a bunch of linguists discussing the topic here if you’re so inclined:

  10. Thanks Alan…this looks great. Goodbye next couple of hours!(It’s OK, I took the day off)

  11. We’re just back from England, and jokes about my son’s misguided attempts at correctly pronouncing ‘Waterloo’ which sounded more like ‘Port-a-loo’. You think ‘dog’ has an obscure etymology, you should try researching ‘loo’!

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