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A Certain Excerpt from A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi": The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English

by Chloe Rhodes

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An Excerpt from A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi": The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English

À la mode
fashionable (French)

The link between France and fashion was established by King Louis XIV, whose court became such an epicentre of good taste that the British aristocracy didn't simply want to dress in French fashion, they wanted the French phrase for it, too. In the seventeenth century the term was anglicized to become "alamode" -- a light silk used to make scarves. In the United States the phrase has also come to mean "with ice-cream"; there must have been a time in small-town America when the combined flavors of cooked apple, sweet pastry and vanilla represented the very latest in fashionable, cutting-edge gastronomy. 
Can I suggest these divine little ankle boots, madam? Python-skin platforms are so à la mode.

Ersatz
replacement (German)

This comes from "ersetzen," which means to "replace," and in Germany the term is straightforward; in sports an "Ersatzspieler" is a "substitute player." But the word picked up some negativity on its route into English. During the First World War, when Allied blockades prevented the delivery of goods to Germany, substitutes had to be found for the basic essentials. Coffee, for instance, was made using roasted grains rather than coffee beans. The practice resumed in the Second World War when Allied prisoners of war who were given this tasteless "Ersatzkaffee" took the word home with them for any inferior substitution or imitation.
Pass me that glass of champagne quickly, Gloria! I think that last canapé was some kind of dreadful ersatz caviar.

Honcho
squad leader (Japanese)

It sounds like Spanish, doesn't it? But in fact, it comes from the Japanese word "hancho," which has its origins in Middle Chinese. "Han" translates as "squad" and "cho" means "chief," which is a common suffix in Japanese for words that denote leadership -- "kocho," for example, means "school principal." The term was brought back to the United States and the UK in the 1940s and 1950s by soldiers serving in Japan and Korea. English speakers use it as slang for "boss," often preceded by the word "head," which, though extraneous, does make for a pleasingly alliterative whole.
Okay, team, this is the beginning of a brave new era. You may think you know how to market paper clips, but I'm the head honcho around here now and we'll sell them my way.

Ketchup
fish brine (Malay, from "kichap")

Yes, Heinz's most popular condiment began life as a spicy pickled fish sauce in seventeenth-century China. The word is a westernized version of of the Malay word "kichap," which came from the Min Chinese "koechiap," meaning "fish brine." The sweet red version we're familiar with began to take shape when American seamen added tomatoes -- excellent for preventing scurvy. In 1876 John Heinz launched his tomato ketchup, and it's been a staple of British and American diets ever since.
Thanks so much for agreeing to look after him, Sarah. Here's his toothbrush and his pajamas, oh, and his bottle of ketchup -- he won't eat anything without it.

Mea culpa
my fault (Latin)

This phrase comes from a Roman Catholic prayer for Mass called "Confiteor," meaning "I confess," which includes the cheery line: "I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault." This English translation appeared beside the Latin in prayer books, and the phrase was absorbed into general use. Now, a "mea culpa" is an admission of guilt for a mistake, often rendered as "mea maxima culpa" by people into serious breast-beating.
Someone among us has left his underwear in the microwave, where I can only assume he was attempting to dry it. I suggest that he perform a swift mea culpa if he wants the chance to salvage the offending item.

Nous
mind, intellect (Greek)

To Homer it meant "mental activity," to Plato it denoted the conscious part of the soul, while for Aristotle it represented the intellect. However, in spite of these varying interpretations, "nous" was generally accepted as a philosophical term for the mind. It continued to be used in this way by later philosophers, but in modern English it has far less cerebral connotations and is used simply to mean "common sense."
That hairdresser could make a fortune out of all the secrets she knows about the rich and famous, but she just doesn't have the nous -- that's why they all like her.

Peccadillo
small sin (Spanish)

This word came to us in the mid sixteenth century from the Spanish, who got their word from the Latin "peccare," meaning "to sin." But it refers only to the mildest of transgressions; an individual's bad habits are often described as their "peccadillos," as long as they are mildly annoying rather than seriously antisocial, and a one-off trivial misdeed might also be described as such.
At the start of their relationship Jean had been charmed by Alfred's little peccadillos, but as she swept his toenail trimmings off the edge of the bathtub for the hundredth time, she knew she had to say good-bye.

Schadenfreude
pleasure taken from another's suffering (German)

This comes from two German words, "Schaden," meaning "damage" or "harm," and "Freude," meaning "joy." Though it sounds like a mean and disturbed emotion to feel, Schadenfreude actually forms the basis of much of our comedy. From the slapstick antics of Charlie Chaplin to the self-deprecatory humor of modern stand-up comedians, as long as suffering isn't permanently damaging, it can be enjoyable to witness. The modern obsession with following the downfall of troubled celebrities is proof of the word's continuing usefulness.
Mary couldn't bear circus clowns, the Schadenfreude the rest of the audience experienced from watching them fall over just left her with a nervous headache.

The above is an excerpt from the book A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi": The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English by Chloe Rhodes. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2010 Chloe Rhodes, author of A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi": The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English