In Other Words
Posted on March 4, 2016
I’ve been mulling over why so many authors I’ve recently read insert a foreign word into the middle of a sentence when there are plenty of good English ones to choose from. It may speak to my choice of authors, but it seems to be a trend. One that is almost as startling to me as why I’ve decided to write a blog. But, back to my original mull: I wonder if I have the nerve to ask if you, my reader, mimic my own somewhat neurotic reading behavior. I get uneasy and prickly when I feel stupid. So, I find myself looking up the italicized (because it’s foreign!) culprit or feign knowledge of the word. I should know this word, damn it! And, lately I’ve come to realize that while the book editor’s job is to save their authors from embarrassment, the general speaker can mutilate a nonnative word by incorrectly inserting the colorful bon mot like a jeweler might string a shiny and therefore distracting bauble onto an otherwise drab strand of beads. Learn a new word? Impressive. Use a foreign word? Über smart. Use an obscure foreign word? Come on. Now you’re just showing off. If I started throwing my weight around with a couple of French verbs, would I gain more readers, status, confidence, or ridicule? I risk being jejune here… so, excuse-moi.
A word of warning when writing without a passport: Know how the word translates. Capisce? A friend of mine likes to say, “Let’s just putz around before lunch.” Does she realize what she’s really saying? Knowing her as I do, I doubt it. ¿Quien sabe? Let’s just say that some Yiddish expressions while tempting to toss in a sentence don’t mean what they sound like. But, knock yourself out, and I’ll stop kvetching.
The addition of a phrase, in any language other than English, can bestow on the writer that je ne sais quoi that most of us have a yen (italics optional) for. The writer, or speaker for that matter, can flirt with foreign vocabulary usage like an American woman might don a scarf while visiting France. Even if her scarf’s label reads Hermes, good luck getting that thing to look as good on her as it does on any French woman. But, for the readers with a street-savvy sense of a couple of languages’ lexicons and who have a command of their correct usages, what glee that must bring to them and those nearby. Good for those readers. What good dinner conversationalists! All that time saved by being au courant. Keeping up with one’s native language is one thing but to manage sifting through one or two more tongues and their vocabulary lists? It’s like a dab of perfume on your neck while you are still wearing sweatpants. You just know you are a better version of yourself for making the effort. So few of us do. Who has the time?
This lingo litmus test arises time after time for me when I come up dry trying to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle. Why didn’t I just try harder, I ask myself, to learn the now ubiquitous code letters for texting? For me, texting is a novel and foreign language. It seems like it should be easier than it is to remember 3 or 4 letters in a particular order. No wonder emojis are overused by my generation. I used to feel this kind of inferiority about Greek mythology puzzle clues. 45 across, 4 letters, Greek top dog: Right you are. Zeus it is; you paid attention in sixth grade. Now, though, the puzzles include texting references that I can’t learn fast enough. Worse yet, it doesn’t stick 🙁. If you are too busy to type Thank You (TY) then what else are you doing? Driving? Don’t get me started on leaving off the period at the end of your text. Did you realize this is up for discussion? Well, it is… LOL.
So if this blog doesn’t grab you because it is too mundane, too obtuse, too old-school, or too uni-lingual, then maybe I can appeal (in a last ditch effort) to your anti-Trump sentiments and give immigrants their due. Somebody should. After all, most of us can count only one or two generations past to a time when our ancestors were schlepping their candlesticks and bibles across the tundra and up the gangplank to board a ship bound for freedom or at least for less oppressive conditions. Wrapping up their precious belongings in some tattered rags (schmattas, if you will), they didn’t worry about switching out SIM cards, establishing global calling plans, or avoiding cellular data overcharges. Instead, families bundled up their hopes, dreams, beliefs, and languages. Most of them expressed these orally, whispering their precious memories to their children, reciting their sacred prayers alongside aging parents, codifying recipes to those hungry enough to want to keep alive forever the flavors and tastes of home. To them, of course, their oral traditions weren’t foreign at all. They managed to communicate their frustrations, fears, morals and thrills using their own lingo. They sang and danced to songs unfamiliar to most anyone else. But, as they got to know their tenement neighbors because they desperately needed each other, they overheard arguments, borrowed sugar and shared meals; they babysat each other’s children, and within a short period of time, boundaries blurred and the foreign became the new normal. People and their languages blended and enriched an entire country because of it.
Language is a beautiful, living thing. And words from far away lands and expressions from the social media galaxy make us feel and act more like the global citizens we’ve come to be. Ironically, I rarely speak to my neighbors, but the realization that I can communicate speedily (thanks Google) using an impressive array of nonnative words (thanks Google Translate) to friends everywhere in the world never ceases to amaze me. My communiqués to friends in Japan or Israel or France, for that matter, probably end up looking as weird and clunky to native speakers in those countries as my local Chinese restaurant menu does to me. But, what’s more important in the case of that menu: correct spelling or a tasty dish? Oh, yeah, and good service. And, it helps to know a few folks 30 years younger than yourself just so you can hear the way language has morphed into an even more vibrant and robust accumulation of luscious, hysterical, and graphic vocabulary and creative syntax. There’s a really tasty dish.
It’s literally about getting the word out there, right? It’s about establishing contact and relationships and building bridges to far-away places and distant-feeling generations. In fact, that’s the impetus behind this blog: to share what’s on my mind while using mostly complete sentences with a majority of English words a lot of the time. But, I can’t promise. Let’s see how it goes. C’est la vie.
Cream and Sugar,