Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Glossed in Translation

Wanderlust descended on the Loungeurs this month and for us, that means travel. We looked at airfares, airport security lines, and global catastrophes and then decided to scale back our ambitions and travel only within the Visual Thesaurus. This month we're investigating a chameleon-like feature of language called the loan translation, or if you prefer, the calque. This has proven to be a most satisfactory travel substitute, like taking a trip without ever leaving the farm!

As you can see by the VT's definition, a loan translation is an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another language. English has world-class borrowing tendencies and as a result, more calques than you can circle with a blue pencil. Many of the first such translations in English were inspired by the early texts: the Classics of antiquity, and the Bible, for example, where words for objects and concepts in other languages were found that required representation, often for the first time, in English. These older calques cease to be thought of as such after a time.

More interesting are the calques that have arisen as a result of increasing commerce and intercourse between speakers of different languages from the 16th century onwards. But why just tell you what they are? With the Visual Thesaurus, a little sleuthing, and some minimal knowledge of European languages (one of the happiest hunting grounds for English), you can stalk the calques yourself - and perhaps satisfy a small part of your own wanderlust. You will want to turn on the search and display functions of the Thesaurus variously to suit the language you're looking in. Let's start by turning on the display for French, our first European destination. Now here's the poser:

  1. What is the French inspiration for the English term "deaf-mute"? (By the way, all answers appear below, and it's cheating to look before you've tried to find the answer in the Thesaurus!)
  2. Now here's one that requires you to do a bit more detective work. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beauve, a 19th century French literary critic, coined a term in French to describe what he thought was the unnecessary aloofness of the poet Alfred de Vigny. This term comes to us as "ivory tower."

  3. What is the term in French that inspired this loan translation? (Hint: you can find the French for "ivory" by quizzing the Thesaurus about a certain West African nation).
  4. Here's one that's redolent of Europe: rhinestone. You might think that we got it from German, what with the Rhine and all, but there you'd be wrong: rhinestone is actually a loan translation from a French term that originally designated a type of crystalline quartz found near the fabled river.

  5. What is the French term that provides the source for English rhinestone? (Hint: French for Rhine is Rhin, a masculine noun in French. Of the various words you'll see in French with the stone word picture, the one giving rise to this term is one of the more literal ones.)
  6. We have all read or watched a novel or movie that is described as a slice of life. This term is so naturalized in English that you'd never suspect it was the French who dreamed it up, and yet . . . it was! Some say it was Zola, others credit the playwright Jean Jullien, but no one disputes that the French mastered and named the genre before English speakers got their pens into it.

  7. What French term is the source of English slice of life? (Hint: the slice part has some currency in English as a direct loanword, especially in the world of finance. The life part is the most likely suspect you'll see in the word picture for life.)
  8. Just for the romance of it, why don't we stay in this language family and look at a couple of other players in the calque wars. You've probably heard the term blue blood to refer, sometimes sneeringly, to an aristocrat or noble, and perhaps you've wondered in passing how this term came to be. The details are hazy, but one thing is clear: it is a translation from Spanish. Some speculate that it refers to the blue veins that are sometimes evident in fair-skinned people - the nobility being generally fairer in complexion than the common folk. You'll want to add Spanish to the display in the VT for your researches here. And yes, it is starting to look a little Tower of Babelish, but for now, leave both French and Spanish in the display, because you're going to need them both for the special bonus question in a moment.

  9. What term in Spanish is the source of English blue blood? (Hint: both terms are nouns, in reverse order of how they appear in English).
  10. If you've come this far, you've earned your diploma in elementary calque decryption and you're ready to take a crack at the special cum laude competition. Here goes: correctly answering this one entitles you to go about all day with a self-satisfied smirk. You may want to turn on the Spanish search function to assist you.

  11. Bonus question: What term, introduced into English from French (without modification), is a translation from Spanish olla podrida? (Hint: podrida is an inflection of the verb pudrir.)

That pretty much puts our wanderlust to bed for this month. And speaking of wanderlust: isn't it German, and hasn't German supplied some calques to English as well? The fact is, German has supplied a whole raft of calques and straightforward loans (like Wanderlust) to English; so many that we will explore them separately in later version of Language Lounge, perhaps in the dead of winter, as befits the frigid northern Weltanschauung.

The Answers:

  1. English deaf-mute is from French sourd-muet
  2. English ivory tower is from French tour d'ivoire.
  3. English rhinestone is from French caillou du Rhin.
  4. English slice of life is from French tranche de vie.
  5. English blue blood is from Spanish sangre azul.
  6. Bonus question: The English and French term is potpourri. This is literally "rotten pot" in Spanish.

Further reading:

If you don't balk at more calques, you might enjoy the Wikipedia article about them:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.