Today’s Merriam-Webster word of the day was an obvioius German word (Schwärmerei “excessive or unwholesome sentiment”) which it identifies as a “naturalized citizen of our language”. Here is their explanation:
In 1845, the editors of the Edinburgh Review felt compelled to use the German “Schwärmerei” to describe fanatical enthusiasm because the concept seemed so foreign to them. In commenting on the writings of German critic and dramatist Gotthold Lessing, they declared “Schwärmerei” to be “untranslatable, because the thing itself is un-English.” That German word derives from the verb “schwärmen,” which means not only “to be enthusiastic” but “to swarm” (it was used to refer to bees), and its ancestors were part of Old High German. Ironically, the Edinburgh Review’s use (the first ever documented in an English publication) seems to have contributed to making the word much more English, and it has since become a naturalized citizen of our language.
If you search the online dictionaries, schwarmerei turns up in two: Merriam-Webster’s and The Worthless Word of the Day. How is that for an odd couple? The OED provides 11 citations, all from British sources, so if it is true that the word has been naturalized, it was naturalized in England, not in North America.
Now, I have already said my piece on using foreign words in an English-language spelling bee. Since Merriam-Webster is the major supporter of that event, their acceptance of Schwärmerei as an English word should come as no surprise. I once commented that Merriam-Webster not only accepts any word it meets in print as a member of the English vocabulary, it sweeps the gutters for neologisms. This is almost understandable since announcing its acceptance of new words, such as its premature announcement about googling recently is one of their primary marketing techniques.
I am often asked the questions, “How many words are there in English?” and “Is it true that there are more words in English than any other language?” Well, if we include all the words in all the languages of the world, I would have to say, “Yes.” It is true that, as one wag put it, “English not only borrows words from other languages, it mugs other languages in dark alleys for their lexical treasure.” So the slope is slippery for all of us. But I think there are a few reasonable tests for whether a word is English or not.
First, shouldn’t a substantial number of native speakers of English who do not know the lending language be acquainted with the word? If the winner of the Scripps-Howard spelling bee was lucky enough to study in a school that offers German, and if she were lucky enough to have taken it, wouldn’t it be unfair to allow her to win on the basis of her ability to spell a German word? Should this not be a word known at least by a majority of scholars or writers in a society?
Second, shouldn’t there be some need of the word borrowed? Schwärmen obviously does not mean “to be enthusiastic” and, oh, by the way, “to swarm,” too. It obviously means “to swarm”. English already has a word meaning “to swarm” and we all know what it is. The difference is that the German word is used differently metaphorically. The English metaphor is “to move excited as a crowd” while the German metaphor is “fanatical enthusiasm for”. So what is wrong with fanatical enthusiasm?
Oh, ho, I see. Fanatical enthusiasm doesn’t quite mean the same thing as Schwärmerei? Maybe not, but then no one who is not nearly a native speaker of German (non-natives are very slow at picking up metaphorical usage) knows what that difference is!
So where do you draw the line between English and all the other languages in the world? We all know what doppelganger is even though it is a perfect synonym of a double. Ursprache, the German word for protolanguage, has now been ordained by the fire of competition. Should we grant citizenship to schwarmerei? Let’s wait until at least one American uses it.