Why Translate Words when You can Steal Them?
Achtung! Of the 5,000 new words that feature in the latest edition of the German equivalent of the OED – the Duden – one has raised a few more eyebrows than the rest. It’s an Anglicism, or a loan word from the English language, that has gained intriguing popularity in the German-speaking world, even appearing on the lips of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The word is Shitstorm, and means in German roughly what it means in English.
This last point is one worth making, because the German language has a longstanding tradition of borrowing words from English and distorting their meaning ever so slightly, giving them a new life of their own in English. Pseudo-anglicisms have become engrained, the unwitting German speakers largely unaware that the words have not travelled well: that in English a Streetworker is not an outreach worker, and that asking for a Handy is likely to get you a slap rather than a mobile phone.
France is traditionally much more protective over its language, with the much-vaunted Académie française dictating what should and should not be said. Or at least attempting to dictate… In this technological age it has made some admirable attempts to resist the (new) lingua franca by introducing such terms as courriel – a clever way of combining “courrier” (mail) and “électronique” – and mèl as substitutes for the English “email”. But few of their attempts to safeguard their linguistic shores against English invasion have been successful, and some of them have invited ridicule, as with this recent #hashtagdebacle. And reading virtually any French popular culture or fashion publication is enough to show that the prescriptivists are increasingly fighting a losing battle.
Japanese is a language from further afield that is a big borrower, not just from English but from other tongues too: sarariman – a salaried office/white collar worker – from “salary” + “man”; sekuhara, from “sex(ual) hara(ssment)”; abekku – or “romantic couple” – deriving from avec (“with”) in French; or igirisu, meaning England, from “ingles” in Portuguese, one of the many Japanese words that evidence the countries’ shared history.
It’s no secret that the English language is prone to pinching words at will, now more than ever deserving of its reputation as the “bastard tongue”. There is not enough space even to make a start in this blog, but suffice to say that our vocabulary reflects our rich and varied history in terms of trade, colonisation, cuisine, immigration and much more besides.