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Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Words

imagesA colleague sent me a contest offering from the venerable American Scholar, magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Titled “Lingua Americana,” it begins by setting out examples of “wonderfully expressive [English] words that defy translation,” including flaky, finagle, and hullaballoo. Remember those words; we’ll return to them.

The contest then proceeds to list untranslatable words that it considers “a bit of a mouthful,” like schadenfreude, or simply unacceptably non-English, like frisson, simpatico, and mensch. For such “foreignisms,” we have not come up with truly English (or, in keeping with the title of the contest, truly American) versions.

Well, I’ll be dad-gummed. You mean we red-blooded Americans, with all our smarts and get-up-and-go, haven’t found a way to call a man a mensch except to call him a mensch? Gives me a helluva frisson just to contemplate it.

Okay, I’ll leave off the hillbilly snark. But isn’t it a little late, even for a publication calling itself The American Scholar, to start shutting the barn door on the English language? I thought we were the sponge language, the one that looks at newly arrived words the way my garden regards so-called weeds: as volunteers. Isn’t that how we got hors d’oeuvres? Bosses? Bananas and rodeos?

Let’s go back to those untranslatable English words. Flaky, obviously, comes from flake, that good old English word denoting soft bits of crust, snow, dandruff, what have you. There seems to be controversy over its origins, however. Some argue for Norse and others for Old High German; none argues for Kent or Philadelphia. Finagle, an Americanism meaning to obtain by trickery, doesn’t appear until the early 20th century but seems to derive from the Britishism fainaigue, which in turn combines feign, to pretend (from the old French feindre) and the French-derived ague, or “acute sickness.”

Hullaballoo grew a little closer to home, stemming from the Scots baloo, for lullaby, to which hulla was presumably added when the good-nights got out of hand. But then again, baloo itself has been traced to the old French bas le loup, or “down with the wolf,” a way of referring to calming lullabies.

Let us review. The American Scholar wishes us to enter a contest in which we find English words for such delightful but untranslatable expressions as schadenfreude, frisson, simpatico, and mensch. Well, I think I’ve got them. Ready? Schadenfreude. Frisson. Simpatico. Mensch.

Can I have my tote bag now?

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