Le mot juste – the right word in any language
In response to my recent blog on “Words that go BANG”, Helen Worswick wrote: “Quench is one of my favourite, as is slake … Draconian – sounds so much like a menacing dragon that it’s very apt and noxious is so very nastily toxic… And then there are words from other languages that we just don’t have in English that also always so spot-on: schadenfreude, ohrwurm (referring to music stuck in your head, not an earwig), laissez-faire to name a few…”
Like Helen, I love languages and I adore foreign words. In fact, I majored in French, Italian and English at university and also studied Russian and German. As a student, my prize possessions were my dictionaries that I lugged with me everywhere – so much so, that my parents eventually bought me a second set to keep in Johannesburg as I was studying at the University of Cape Town and my luggage on the plane was always overweight. So Helen’s idea of words from foreign languages that we use in English struck a chord with me. It’s about finding “le mot juste” – just the right word to emphasise what you’re trying to say.
Thinking further, I realise that loanwords are “borrowed” for that very reason. They just say it better than you could in the original language.
Here is my Top 10:
- Doppelgänger – from German, this means a ghostly double of a person who is still alive. This one resonates for me particularly because of my novel, Shadow Self, which shows that both evil and good can come from my character Thea, almost as though she is two people.
- Faux pas – from the French for a social blunder. Everybody has had one of those, you know, when you arrive at a party in fancy dress, when you’ve misread the invitation? No?
- Voetstoets (also spelt voetstoots) – from Afrikaans. This describes a sale where the vendor is freed from any responsibility for the condition of the goods in question. So if the wheel of the bicycle falls off after the sale, it’s not the vendor’s problem – the item is sold “as is”.
- Angst – from the German for dread or anxiety. I find that this word has an almost existential quality about it.
- Braai – from Afrikaans (this particular word has roots in the Dutch). A barbecue or cookout but in South Africa, it is more than this, there is a whole cultural experience wrapped up in this word.
- Ad nauseum – from Latin. It means to a sickening degree and generally this can apply to a great number of politicians, especially at the moment with various elections coming up.
- Chiaroscuro – from Italian. It describes how light and shade is treated in drawing and painting, but it can be used to describe this on other surfaces. The word always reminds me of the biography of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, which I loved.
- Nom de guerre – from French. It means a pseudonym, but in my novel The Punishment, Thibault’s brother, who secretly joins the Maquis literally has “a name for war”.
- Weltschmerz – from German, for sadness over the evils of the world. If I consider current warnings being issued about terror alerts and kidnappings, world-weariness makes a lot of sense to me.
- Bon mot – from the French for a witty comment. My youngest son always has one of these, sometimes without even realising it. His latest is that I can only adore him because he is adorable, whereas my older son is apparently just “cool”.
What foreign words do you like? I’d like to add them to my list.