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Archive for August, 2006

Swarming to Schwärmerei?

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

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:

Deese bees are gettink on my nerfs!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.

Of Castles and Chateaus

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

CastlePeggy Nielsen wrote today: “As I walked this morning through a lovely park outside the local Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), the word campus came to mind. I’m thinking the word is from Latin, given the -us ending and I’ll bet it originally had something to do with soldiers. Now we use the word to mean the area where a college or university is situated and I think we have broadened it to mean any large area outside a central building or collection of buildings.”

“And then I am reminded of Champs Elysees, meaning, of course, Elysian Fields. Here “champs” also = “field.” Am I on the right track and is campus related to champs?”

Well, “related to” hardly describes it: champs IS campus 2000 years later. French, of course, is Latin as it developed over the centuries in France (Italian is Latin as it developed as Rome became Italy). So it is the same word.

An oddity which (last I heard) no one understands is the shift of C (pronounced [k]) to CH before A in French. This process is called palatalization because the point of pronunciation moves from back of the mouth [k] on the soft palate to the hard palate [ch]. Palatalization is common before I and E (as in Italian focaccia), vowels pronounced with the tongue in the front of the mouth. However, in French it seems to have occured before the back vowel [a]:

  • chateau from castellum “castle, fortress”,
  • champs from campus “field”,
  • chapeau “hat” from cappellum “cap”

Cappellum is the diminutive of capa from which we get cape. It originally meant a hooded cape and so the diminutive would have meant “a short cape” which would have left just the hood. 

One final note of interest. Latin castellum “fortress” is also a diminutive of castrum “camp, fortified place”. The root here is the same as that of castrare “to castrate” (Ugh!). However, the original root seems to have meant “to cut”, which means that the original camps were clearings, perhaps with the resultant logs used as fortification.

In any event, Latin also has an adjective castus “chaste” which shares the same root. The connection witih “cut” here is murky to say the least but given the original meaning was “abstaining from sexaual activity”, I shudder thinking about it.

So let me just wrap up today’s jottings by pointing out that the change from castus to chaste is yet another example of C becomeing CH before A in French since French is where English got this word.

Mel Gibson’s Loud Mouth

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

Mel GibsonThere isn’t much to say about Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic remarks when he was arrested for DUI last Friday.  Claiming that Jews have started all wars was simply idiotic—the sort of statement you would expect from a drunk. It does not show that he is at heart anti-semitic any more than his motion picture, The Passion of Christ does. Drunks say outrageous things that are not necessarily latent feelings that sobriety suppresses. (Freud has long ago been discredited and in vino veritas applies only to Romans.)

As Gibson says in his ostensibly abject apology, public figures must be more careful than mere mortals like the rest of us and he should not have said what he did.  That is obvious.  I see no point in publishing it, either.  He is an actor and director of motion pictures. His views on Jewish history certainly aren’t newsworthy.  His appeal to the Jewish community (whatever that is) to help him in the healing process strikes me more as a gratuitous attempt to put the ball in the Jewish community’s court than evidence of his sincerity.

So why do I bring it up? Well, he said it and any kind of speech is fair game for a language blog.  The question here is one of semantics—what did he actually mean when he made his antisemitic statements?  I have no more idea whether he is antisemitic now than I was before all the hoopla.  And I don’t care so long as he is not actively opposing Jewish interests.

For me, neither his personality nor character is at issue, only the quality of the films he creates. I simply resent his use of the English language to publish this sentiment whether it is sincere or not.  It doesn’t matter who said it.  There is nothing newsworthy in it and it certainly doesn’t deserve repeating.