The Greatest Borrower of Words


English is by far the greatest borrower of words from other languages.  As the English language morphed from Old English to Middle English, to Early Modern English and to Modern English, it absorbed thousands of words from other sources such as:

  1. Latin
  2. Celtic
  3. Scandinavian
  4. French
  5. Greek
  6. Arabic
  7. Spanish
  8. Italian
  9. Dutch, Flemish
  10. German
  11. Yiddish
  12. Russian
  13. Sanskrit
  14. Hindi
  15. Dravidian
  16. Persian (Farsi)
  17. African languages
  18. American Indian languages
  19. Chinese
  20. Pacific Islands languages
  21. Australian English
  22. Many others

That is why it is such a fascinating language, alluring and detestable at the same time.  It is a extremely dynamic language, always changing like a living organism—even as we speak.  “English is seldom at a loss of words.”

In vocabulary, English is the richest modern language. It is constantly surprising even to those word gatherers among us who spend much time exploring dictionaries, especially the larger and older lexicons that harbor thousands of neglected words—words that may be a bit dusty but are none the worse for disuse.

English also has an abundance of synonyms, many not so familiar. (A relatively unknown synonym for the word synonym is poecilonym). To sunbathe, for example, is to apricate. A synonym for kissing is suaviation. We all know the word swastika. (The swastika was a positive symbol — of good luck — before the advent of Germany’s infamous Third Reich.) But how many know it’s also called a gammadion, fylfot, or crux gammata? Or that for the medical symbol called a caduceus (a winged staff with two entwined snakes) there is a far less known synonym — kerykeion?

But more obscure terms can be handy when one wants to be discreet (not to say deceptive or veiled) or somewhat droll in what one means.

Take the case of a guy on a dating website describing himself as being unconventionally handsome and stating that he is ventripotent, exophthalmic, and trochocephalic as well as opisthognathic. Don’t be surprised when he turns out to be pot-bellied and bug-eyed with a huge round head and a projecting upper jaw.

Borrowing is a consequence of cultural contact between two language communities. Borrowing of words can go in both directions between the two languages in contact, but often there is an asymmetry, such that more words go from one side to the other. In this case the source language community has some advantage of power, prestige and/or wealth that makes the objects and ideas it brings desirable and useful to the borrowing language community. For example, the Germanic tribes in the first few centuries A.D. adopted numerous loanwords from Latin as they adopted new products via trade with the Romans. Few Germanic words, on the other hand, passed into Latin.

If you are a serious about studying English be prepared for a long haul.  It is fun and irritating, but at the end of the day, you have done something absolutely wonderful.  Oh!  I love this language!  I really mean it!

Suggested Readings:

  1.  Engish is Seldom at a Loss of Words by David Grambs and Ellen S. Levine
  2.  Borrowed Words

6 thoughts on “The Greatest Borrower of Words”

  1. Good morning! Yes, I’ve always known that the English language has borrowed or morphed words from other languages. It is really interesting how many words have just fallen by the wayside and are no longer used regularly. It is sad really because those lost words are really the colorful and beautiful aspects of the language. You are on quite a linguistic journey, my friend 🙂

    1. Good Morning Barbara:

      Yes Barbara, I have taken the study of the English language as a hobby. There is so much history and hidden jewels to find out and relish. I’ve been on this journey since I was six. It’s wonderful, my dear friend.

      Bye,

      Omar.-

  2. Hola Omar,
    Ever been to Key West Florida? The island is not west of anything nor is it the shape of a key. The Spanish explorers named it Cayo Hueso which the English speakers heard as Key West.
    English is a fun language to study with so many different directions to go.
    jim

    1. Morning Jim and Nena:

      No, I’ve been only to Miami and several occasions. Absolutely, English is a ball to study, albeit it can sometimes be a tough bone to chew on.

      Thanks for the story of Key West, it makes a lot of sense translating Cayo Hueso to Key West.

      Regards,

      Omar.-

  3. Hi Omar, You would be fascinated by The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal. Cambridge University Press. Have a nice day.

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