Foreign Words in English: Are we Getting them Wrong? (Not Really, No)

I think it’s only fair, after looking at the way the French language uses pseudo-anglicisms (a lovely term I came across earlier), it’s only fair that I take a corresponding look at foreign words we use in English, and how their use is different from in their original language. Unsurprisingly, we use a lot of foreign terms, and with most English speakers being monolingual, we don’t always use them as they were originally intended.

Not that that necessarily means we’re wrong. Words change meaning all the time, particularly when they move from one language to another. French speakers aren’t wrong to call a car park un parking, or call jogging footing (another one I’ve just remembered). They’re just using the words differently from us. It might sound odd to us, but not to them. The same caveat therefore applies to the following uses of non-English terms:

Oh là là: First, note the single O – I mentioned in relation to shampooing that standard French doesn’t feature a double O (they don’t even say it: James Bond is zéro zéro sept!) The sound of Oh is therefore just… O. It’s understandable that we didn’t transfer the accents over the A‘s as we don’t use those in English. Most importantly though, the meaning is quite different. In English it can be used in a few different contexts, but it’s generally used with an air of coyness or sexual suggestion, or ironically at something (apparently) extravagant. In French though, it’s generally not used like this, and is in fact a general interjection, which can express surprise, but also dismay or annoyance. You might use it to refer to a traffic jam, a surprising moment in a film, or when your team score a goal in a football match. The closest English equivalent would be something as flexible as Oh my God!

Mano a mano: this one’s not really used incorrectly. Referring to a one-on-one confrontation, it’s Spanish and means hand-to-hand, as in a physical fight. So it’s not wrong at all to use it to refer to a confrontation. What people do get wrong is that they assume it means man-to-man in Spanish.

Entrée: used only in American English (the rest of us say main course), in French this refers to a starter (appetizer). Again though, it’s not strictly wrong, as use of entrée dates back to times when lavish meals consisted of many courses, and the equivalent of modern starters could be quite large, and still preceded by smaller course. It’s quite complicated, but it’s not as illogical as it seems at first glance, trust me.

Forte: again, it’d be a little pedantic to say this is wrong. The origin of this word, meaning a person’s particular strength or speciality, is in medieval French. To this day, forte is the feminine form of the adjecitve meaning strong in French. As it’s from French then, the E should be silent. But we also the musical term forte, meaning to be played loudly or strongly. As this word is originally Italian, the E is pronounced like ay. So we are strictly pronouncing forte wrong, when we’re not referring to music. But again, there’s no confusion of meaning. Plus, if we don’t pronounce the E when we say my forte, people might think we’re referring to our little fort we’ve made out of pillows.

There are a few more I could choose, but to be honest, I don’t want to nitpick. Most of them are only slightly different from their original meaning, and would be easily understood by speakers of the original language. Most importantly, we tend to use foreign words and expressions as the same basic part of speech as their original language. We use adjectives as adjectives, countable nouns as countable nouns, and interjections as interjections. Sometimes though, other languages will take English words and use them as different types of word, which makes them sound a bit uncanny to our ear. Like how French uses parking, zoning, and shampooing as countable nouns instead of uncountable nouns, present participles, or gerunds.

I think part of the reason for this disparity is that a lot of English loanwords are French or Latin, and came into English in medieval times when French and Latin were fairly widely used in Britain in elite circles. People were therefore exposed to correct French and Latin regularly, and when expressions from these languages entered English, their meaning stayed the same. In more recent times, loanwords that entered English through American English would likely have been encountered by immigrants using them, so again, there’s direct exposure to their accurate use. Therefore, for example, words for different foods enter English and keep their original language.

In much of the rest of the world though, people aren’t regularly exposed directly to English. In many European countries for example, English is somewhat “cool,” but when people watch English-language films or TV, it’s dubbed into their own language. They still come across English here and there, but not enough that the precise meanings and uses of words will always be understood. And the meaning shifts gradually as it’s passed from one person to another, like Chinese whispers. And then we end up with words like shampooing.

And that’s a world I’m happy to live in. Sure, shampooing seems odd to me, but I like that! I can’t help but smile when I see it in the supermarket. And even if we don’t use words from other languages absolutely “correctly,” at least it shows we’re still open to exchange with other cultures. Plus, if a word changes meaning when being used in another language, that just means we’ve added a new word to the vocabulary of our language, and the world is that little bit richer for it.

2 thoughts on “Foreign Words in English: Are we Getting them Wrong? (Not Really, No)

  1. […] The first time I encountered this phenomenon I wondered why the subtitlers translated the dialogue at all. If the desired effect for English speakers was that they wouldn’t understand these passages, why not maintain that effect for everyone? But having watched quite a few English films with subtitles now, I think I understand. It’s obvious to me when the dialogue switches from English to another language, but then, I’m a native English speaker. Would it be so easy though, for a French speaker with little knowledge of English (though such a person would probably go to a much more common French-dubbed version: watching a film in the version originale in Wallonia is a bit, well, ooh la la)? […]

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