Calque or Loanword?

Reading about Anglish yesterday, I realised that one of the most useful methods for proponents of this form of English is creating calques.

What’s a calque, I hear you ask?

A calque is like a loanword. Loanwords, as I explained way back in that very first blog post, are simply words borrowed by one language from another. English is full of them. Restaurant from French. Pizza from Italian. Rucksack from German. And many other languages borrow loanwords from English.

The key difference between a calque and a loanword, is that a loanword isn’t translated into English (pizza in Italian is pizza), whereas a calque is. Sometimes it’s a whole phrase or compound noun wherein each component word is literally translated. Sometimes it’s a single word whose root parts are changed into English equivalents.

Flea market is a good example of a calque, being a literal translation of the French marché aux puces. The English compound noun skyscraper is an example of a calque in many other languages, who literally translate the word into terms which mean, for example, something that scrapes the sky.

English has taken calques from many languages, but most often from German. This is logical enough, due to the shared history of the two languages, and specifically because of the structural similarities between the two languages. I’ve mentioned before that German is very fond of making compound nouns, which makes German a great source of calques. Compound nouns are also very easily translated into calques, as usually there’s a simple equivalent of each component word, particularly between English and German, which are so similar.

This is why German has given so many calques including: beer garden, earworm, antibody, flamethrower, foreword, superman, stormtrooper, superego, and… loanword.

Yes, the word loanword is, kind of ironically, a calque! It’s a literal translation of the German Lehnwort!

And to answer your next question: yes, calque is a loanword, from French! (meaning tracing, or close copy)

While I’ve been writing this, I’ve realised that I recently wrote about a calque that officially became a loanword: Côte d’Ivoire.

Originally, the name of the country was a calque: literally translated into other languages. But due to the confusion of this, the Ivorian government requested that the official name in all languages be the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire.

You can see how calques are useful, especially for the average Anglishman. A few interesting examples can be found in Poul Anderson’s 1962 text about atomic theory, Uncleft Beholding. In this book, he experimented with replacing Latin-based scientific terms with Germanic equivalents, inventing them when necessary. Uncleft is an example of one such creation, a calque of atomic (a from the Greek meaning not, and -tomic from temnein, meaning to cut). Other calques Anderson created include waterstuff (hydrogen) and sourstuff (oxygen), from the German Wasserstoff and Sauerstoff respectively.

In a way those words make sense because they’re literal translations of the meanings of the original words, but of course they also sound strange to us, because we’re so used to scientific terms being Latin in origin.

Calques and loanwords are generally great. They’re lovely examples of people looking at other languages and saying, Hey, that other language is doing something pretty cool, let’s get into that! Whether we borrow that part of the other language as a calque or loanword probably depends on how it sounds as a loanword. If it sounds good to Anglophone ears, we keep it as a loanword. If it doesn’t sound good, or if the English translation has a nice ring to it, we turn it into a calque.

It’s just part of the natural evolution of languages. What I don’t like though, is taking perfectly good loanwords or words with non-English origins, and turning them into calques out of some misguided sense of linguistic purity. I like the fact English has words from so many sources which all look and sound different. It’s a mongrel language, and that’s a great testament to its inclusivity. Long live calques!

9 thoughts on “Calque or Loanword?

  1. English is a rich language because it’s such a mongrel. French, possibly because of the efforts of the French to keep it pure, is poorer. German is brilliant, because anyone can create new words with compound nouns.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Reblogged this on English-Language Thoughts and commented:

    I’m taking a break today, as I was too busy to write anything yesterday. Why do we say “break” in this context? Well, you won’t find out today, as I’m taking a break, but let’s have a look at this old post about the difference between a calque and a loanword instead!


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