- - Monday, March 6, 2017


By Philip Gooden

Head of Zeus/IPG, $24.95, 359 pages

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For many people across the world, the dominant role of English has been a problem. Back in the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle was so concerned that French was being contaminated by such an infusion from across the Channel, that he fought a largely unsuccessful rear-guard action against what was known as “Franglais.” If words like “le weekend” or sound-alikes like “rosbif” instead of the correct French words “boeuf roti” were unstoppable, the words engendered by the American computer-related technologies of the late-20th and early-21st century only made for a truly global tidal wave. Yet even here, there is cross-pollination rather than one-way traffic. Consider the French word menu, long a staple in English food terminology, which now has a whole new connotation.

Rather than focus on the back-and-forth dynamic between languages, British author Philip Gooden has chosen to concentrate on the English language as a sponge that soaks up foreign words from many languages, a list of which he usefully provides. His book is organized charmingly as well as practically, providing in chronological order a multitude of foreign words purloined and then firmly ensconced in our language. His justification for this is characteristically humorous as well learned:

” ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal,’ Picasso said or is supposed to have said. English is a great language by any reckoning, and so it must also be reckoned as more of a thief than a copier yet to steal words from a language does not deprive that language of its own words; rather it is to share the original expressions more widely, in the process often giving them a different spelling, another shape and perhaps a meaning that has strayed some distance from the one in the source. English is adept at this. The language is a great borrower, a practiced thief.”

English is such an anomaly among the world’s tongues. Its core is as a Germanic language, descended like its confreres (another borrowed word) from Old High German. But its roots in Anglo-Saxon have been so overlaid with Celtic, Greek, Latin and French that it seems less Germanic than the Scandinavian languages, Dutch or German itself. Not to mention the effects of later infusions of Indian words from the Raj and Australian and U.S. expressions.

Who would guess that some of the most common words in our language like skin, skull, skill, sky, skirt, egg, husband, sister, ill, leg, take, raise, club, anger, want, die, window, keel, dirt entered English from the Viking marauders in the 10th century? It’s not that surprising to learn that the F-word probably entered the language from German in the early-16th century, more than four-and-a-half centuries before Kenneth Tynan caused such a sensation by uttering it on BBC television. What is surprising is that the word’s origins are obscure and that its explosive verbal power, which was enough to get D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” banned, “don’t carry quite such a charge in other European languages” according to Mr. Gooden. So borrowing a word can clearly lead to enormous enhancement in shock value, among other transformations.

So it’s a global as well as a local tour d’horizon in these pages. Ketchup derives its name from Malayan or a Chinese dialect. Robot “ultimately derives from an old Slavic term for ‘slave.’ The modern sense of robot to describe an artificial being designed to perform some task(s) comes from ‘R.U.R.,’ a play by the Czech writer Karel Capek. First performed in 1921, ‘R.U.R.’ (in translation ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’) is set in a factory that produces artificial human beings for commercial purposes.” Truly, the world is Mr. Gooden’s oyster.

Mr. Gooden has a preternatural feeling for some languages other than his own. The chapter dealing with the word chutzpah, which he correctly defines as “cheek or brazenness, but the word has an elusive nuance that distinguishes it from those two English synonyms, and this sense of something extra is very characteristic of Yiddish.” After a joyous romp through words like schmooze, maven, schmaltzy and schlep — who knew this last actually appears in James Joyce’s “Ulysses?” — he proclaims, “Yes, Yiddish is hard to put into other words.”

To me the most fascinating fact is that the first citation of chutzpah in the English language was by British Jewish author Israel Zangwill as early as 1892 in “Children of the Ghetto.” He is perhaps best known for coining 16 years later the (unborrowed) term “The Melting Pot” in his eponymous drama hailed by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt from the audience as “a great play.” More than that it was a great concept, which for many, but too few, decades came to encapsulate the successful blending of successive waves of immigrants and their cultures into an all-American mix. The abandonment of this homogenizing notion in favor of focus on roots, grievances and identity politics has produced the current fraught situation about immigrants and their role in our society. So this book, while crammed with valuable examples of its own subject, has the virtue of making us look outside its boundaries as well.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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