Borrowed Words, part 2

I wrote a post some time back that featured so-called “borrowed words” – words that have become common in English, yet still retain their original spelling/meaning/pronunciation (some words more so than others). Every language has borrowed words, not just English, especially in today’s global village life. For example, how many languages use terms like “computer” and “tee shirt” as they are instead of translating the actual meaning?

So here are a few more words that you’ve probably heard and used in your speaking or writing of English – but they’re not actually English words at all.

Smorgasbord – a large spread of a variety of foods. This term often is used in a more metaphorical sense to describe an array of anything that features great diversity or variety – like, say, a smorgasbord of entertainment available at a county fair. The word is spelled Smörgåsbord in its native Sweden, and specifically describes a buffet-like arrangement of cold foods.

Cuisine – another foodie word here, which basically means “the art of cooking.” It’s a French word (like so many food words are, actually – buffet, gourmet). Cuisine usually refers to the specific types of food and preparation styles associated with a regional area or culture.

Tsunami – a big ocean wave, of the sort that causes devastation on land. Sometimes it’s called a tidal wave, but most people use the Japanese word tsunami.

Tundra – an arctic landscape of rolling hills and treeless vegetation. Alpine tundra refers to a similarly cold and harsh landscape high the mountains where it’s too cold for trees to grow. The word comes from the Sami languages of northern Scandinavia and north-western Russia, and it means “uplands” or “treeless plain.”

Boondocks – in American English it means a remote place, like your uncle’s farm out in the middle of nowhere. American soldiers in the Philippines brought this Tagalog word into English. Bundok means “mountain” in Tagalog.

Opossum – a small marsupial common to the Americas, especially the North American east coast region. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have opossums, consider yourself lucky. Personally, I find them to be creepy creatures – they look like giant rats, and are notoriously slow to get out of the road. The name of this animal comes from the Virginia Algonquian language of the Powhatan Native Americans.

So there you have it – more English words that aren’t English at all. What are some other borrowed words?

The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Homophones

So what is a homophone anyway, and why should a writer care? Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different spellings and meanings (homo=the same, phone=sound). These are words that are fine when you’re speaking them, but writing them can sometimes be a bit more confusing.

For this post, I’ll highlight three sets of homophones that I see giving people the most trouble. Here are two words that I see misused and mixed up the most often: you’re and your. You’re is a contraction of you are (see my previous nitty-gritty post about the apostrophe). Your is possessive, meaning that the word represents something belonging to you. The best way to break it down and remember which one to use when writing is to break up the contraction of you’re.

Correct:

I think you’re going to enjoy this book. (I think you are going to enjoy this book.)

Is that your book? (Is that the book that belongs to you?)

Incorrect:

Your very pretty. (Your pretty what? What belongs to you that’s very pretty?)

Let’s take you’re car to the store. (Let’s take you are car to the store. Makes no sense.)

Another common homophone mix-up is they’re/their/there. One of these is a contraction, like you’re, so again, you can split it up into its component words to clarify the meaning for yourself. As for the other two words, someone might have an easy to trick to remembering which spelling means what; but, failing that, you’ll just have to memorize them.

They’re is a contraction of they are.

Their is possessive, referring to something that belongs to them.

There refers to a place or location, usually a little farther away than here.

Correct:

They’re running late. (They are running late.)

I love Fluffy, but he’s their cat. (I love Fluffy, but he belongs to them.)

The book is on the table over there. (The book is on the table a short distance away, rather than table here close by.)

Incorrect:

Their running late. (Being possessive, using their makes no sense. What belongs to them that is running late?)

I love Fluffy, but he’s there cat. (Meaning the cat that is there instead of here?)

The book is on the table over they’re. (The book is on the table over they are. Um, what?)

Some other commonly misused homophones:

To/too/two:

To is a preposition, and usually refers to direction or is the infinitive form of a verb. He went to the store.

Too means also. I love pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms—and sausage, too!

Two is the number after one and before three. I was hungry so I ate two burgers.

Hear/here:

Hear means to listen or to be aware of sound. I hear the neighbor’s dog barking again.

Here is similar to there, but usually closer. Sit here on the sofa next to me.

By/buy/bye:

By is a preposition, and usually functions as from or as part of a location. This book is by my favorite author. Come by my house at ten.

Buy means to purchase or accept. I need to buy dog food tonight.

Bye is a shortened form of good-bye, a farewell greeting. Bye, Jimmy! See you in school tomorrow.

Yes, English can be a confusing language, and the abundance of homophones doesn’t make it any easier. If you text your friend that “their running late,” he or she will usually know what you mean and it’s not a big deal. But if you’re turning in a paper for school, or a short story for your creative writing group, or writing a blog post selling your services as an editor, these little homophone mix-ups become a much bigger deal.

If you hear of a trick to help you keep straight which spelling means what, please share! But otherwise, good old fashioned memorization (and maybe another pair of eyes to read over your work) will be your best friends for helping with homophones.

Borrowed Words

Every language is influenced by other languages. And every language winds up adopting foreign words over time, sometimes adapting them to unique uses in the new language, and sometimes keeping the form and definition the same.

For this blog entry, I thought I’d highlight a few common words that are used in modern English that actually have their origin in another language far removed. Such words are usually called “borrowed words,” which personally I find to be a strange term. The language and its speakers don’t temporarily borrow a foreign word with the intention of giving it back someday. “Adopted words” would be more accurate, in my opinion; but for now I’ll go with the more well-known linguistic term.

Buffet—a self-serve spread of food, often found in restaurants such as an all-you-can-eat cheap Chinese buffet. This word is French, and it originally referred to the sideboard (or side table) where food was laid out to be served to seated diners at the dining table.

Kayak—a narrow one- or two-person boat steered with a two-ended paddle. It’s an Inuktitut word (often spelled “qajaq” in that language). The Inuit and Eskimos of the Arctic used this boat for centuries for hunting and travel before we adopted it for recreational use.

Piano—a musical instrument constructed of keys which use hammers to strike strings to produce the sound. It’s part of a longer word pianoforte, which is Italian for “soft-loud.” It meant that this musical instrument, unlike many others of centuries ago, could be played both softly and loudly.

Sauna—a hot room, either steamy or dry, used for relaxation, rejuvenation, and all manners of sweating. We get the sweat-room concept, and the word, from Finnish. The Finns love their saunas.

Bazaar—a large shopping venue, with many stores or booths selling a variety of merchandise. Bazaar is a Persian word, and us English speakers liked it so much we now use the word for everything from art shows to farmers’ markets to catalogs.

Geyser—a hot spring that erupts from beneath the ground with explosive force, often at regular intervals. Iceland is a land where many geysers can be found, and that’s where the word comes from. “Geysir” in Icelandic is both the general term for this natural phenomenon, and the name of one of the island’s largest geysers.

So there you have it—who knew that English uses so many words that aren’t English? And I could list many others. Anybody else have other suggestions to add to the “borrowed words” list? How about some words “borrowed” into other languages besides English?