On Borrowing and Inventing Words

Many words in constant use are borrowed, stolen, adapted and invented. Of course, one cannot go to court to reclaim a word, unless it is proprietary (pharmaceutical companies do so at a drop of a hat). Has anyone been sued for using the phrase, “I googled the information” or “I hoovered my patio”?

Whatever its historical precedent, borrowing words and expressions from other languages than our own is certainly trendy. It is stimulated largely, but not exclusively, by intense global trade and the phenomenal rise of certain technologically-based enterprises which depend heavily on inventions and discoveries. These have a vested interest in getting their proprietary names circulated as widely as possible. Principle: what is good for consumption is good (profitable) for business.

There seems to be more than commercial advantage for the extensive proliferation of words. Here I examine only three. Each has been named to give a clue to its use: 1) Sanitary Measures; 2) Tagging the New, 3) Insider-Outsider Separations.

1) Sanitary Measures

If one wants to rid one’s home-language of ambiguities, importing words often helps. Ambiguity is viewed as a curse for which a cure is needed. Language has to be sanitized to keep it clean of confusion. It can be done by replacements from an unfamiliar donor-language. On this criterion, Zulu words may be better than imports from Spanish – especially at a time when the latter is becoming the second language in the USA. No one has followed this suggestion – but it could happen. The borrower-language gains a word which can be given a singular, unambiguous “unique” definition in English.

Note that borrowed words need definitions to accompany them on the journey and are translations: the words and expressions used in the definition must themselves be unambiguous. This is difficult to do – and sometimes fails. However, the possibility that a word taken from the donor-language may be ambiguous in its home territory is irrelevant: importing it will strip the word of home-ground ambiguity.

This desirable effect may be temporary and may erode quite quickly in a new environment. Like kids, words don’t stand still for long. The new term will be defined when first introduced, an act designed to freeze the meaning of the word, to isolate and insulate it. Like a band-aid the protection wears off with prolonged exposure. Most users have no vested interest in protecting the word’s “purity” or singularity of meaning, and will allow it to deteriorate. At some point the process of purification may restart – a new word may then be imported: the band-aid is replaced.

No one seems to mind these perturbations, except inveterate conservatives who with advancing age may resist innovations in communication with unseemly vigour. The effort to establish clarity and avoid ambiguity may therefore be quite short-lived before confusion re-asserts itself. On this analysis, language forever changes.

Would a universal language cure this, as some have suggested?

Unlikely, because the need and demand for new words to tag new phenomena will continue unabated. Our efforts to expand knowledge are not based on such noble principles as Francis Bacon (1561-1629) occasionally proclaimed in his prefaces but to an objective he recognized well: to increase the wealth of the “commonwealth” (read: nation-state) through the proper use of the new knowledge, the fruit of empirical research (based on experimental induction!). New words in an old language would surely draw attention to what is new, but it is new within the context of the old.

A whole industry has sprung recently to ride the wave of promoting “innovation” in goods and services and the terms which landmark these. From this perspective a new language would be counter-productive; it would only have temporary advantage. To call a new mouse trap by its traditional name is unlikely to enhance sales and encourage wide adoption. (Nor would its manufacturer be interested in exterminating the species either!) New mouse traps need mice in profusion, a new technical principle or architecture and a new name to ensure its commercial success.

Should one hesitate to advocate the emergence of a universal new language like a newly invented, constructed language on the model of Esperanto? Or a simplified English, as Winston Churchill had proposed to unify the post WWII world? Neither has been successful. Language is a cultural phenomenon: create a new culture – if you know how – and you will get a new language.

2) The Phenomenon of Tagging the New

One may wish to bring awareness of genuinely new experiences to others, perhaps a new style in dress (remember the miniskirt?), an unusual type of music (like rap), a recently discovered aquatic plant, or a newly-discovered insect. It may suffice to report, “I saw a new bug today, which looked a like a giant ant,” but sooner or later someone will demand a new name, a tag which will forever differentiate this new creature from all others, particularly from its close relatives!

The temporary tag may suffice momentarily: without great ceremony. *Giant ant* will be discarded. The new name may be drawn from a foreign language – probably Latin (entomology is replete with names of creatures composed from the skeleton of Latin) – and the new label will be supported by many descriptions and endless photographs and fine pencil drawings of its gross features as well as its fine structures in the fashion of Dürer. But this habit of Latinizing entomological entities may change if more and more entomologists come from China: a Mao-beetle perhaps? It is not the name that matters, but the detailed descriptions and its presumed relationship to other species.

Scientific terms, furthermore, are less prone to ambiguity because the number of people using such terms is relatively small. Also there exists a culture of respect for definitions which is significantly different from what happens in everyday language, from the language of the street, of the home and the workplace.

3) The Inside-Outside Phenomenon

The third reason for importing terms from a foreign language may appear trivial, yet it is nonetheless historically important. People who share an interest in some activity (e.g., golf) or set of objects (e.g., butterflies) may consolidate and develop their own lingo which sets them off from others. They become serendipitously an insider group – and create an outsider group, those billions on the other side of their fence. No better example than the military or comparable organization, like Boy Scouts.

Furthermore, when one section of a community wants to establish a special position for itself it often does so by also – and inadvertently – developing an “insider language.” (As a former Brit I have never understood the jargon of football.) Many secret societies do so (Freemasons, for example). I find myself often using the phrase *en passant* when the English expression *in passing* would do just as well: my generation of academics were prone to this form of elitism. It was not a matter whether one “imported” words, but from whence the import came! In my case, the barriers established through parental training broke down during teen-hood and the language of the age-group overrode many social class barriers, a process which could work in both directions – and of course often did. Rule: social groups develop their own speech and jealously guard its borders.

Of these three factors reviewed the second seems to me more interesting. It suggests that terms are imported into a daily language whenever new phenomena are identified and become locally important. In my youth the car was king; today the focus is on electronic devices, including communication devices and robotics. Both have produced a glut of new words unfathomable to my European grandparents (1870-1940). Of course, new terms do not have to be borrowed or pilfered from another language, as suggested earlier, but could be wrought from different roots, from both foreign and from within the home-language, as *apps* is; even from two roots within the home-language. The term *vacuum-cleaner* illustrates this. It consists of two already familiar words which later were fused into one.

royallabor*Vacuum-cleaner*: a borderline case

One could object to my example of *vaccum-cleaner* as a combination of two collegial words and argue that it is a hybrid of a foreign and a colloquial word. The term *vacuum*, one could argue, has distinct foreign origins. It was certainly in use at the turn of the 18th century but in a very restricted way. During the mid 18th century it became more widely known amongst the “educated” males in Britain, who recognized that *vacuum* referred to space unoccupied by matter (and whose root was the Latin vacuus = empty). To understand the term *vacuum-cleaner* only required that the user realized that a vacuum creates a suction and that it is the suction induced by a motor (?) which accounts for lifting dirt from a floor! I suppose the term *suction-cleaner* would have done equally well as *vacuum-cleaner* but we cannot reverse preferences of fashion or the order in which these appeared in history! *Vacuum* was certainly more “elegant” than *suction* – and this may have played a role in the choice of words. What is of interest is that a term was selected which had minimal ambiguity and which could be given a “clear” and “clean” definition.

7 thoughts on “On Borrowing and Inventing Words

  1. One curious example of imprecision resulting from importing words is the case of the Latin *quid pro quo* — literally *what for which* or more loosely *this for that*.

    In English, we understand it to mean *a favor or advantage in return for something (of more or less equivalent value)*. I did this for you; therefore, you will do that for me.

    But interestingly in several romance languages, the term means quite something else. A *quid pro quo* is a confusion, as in, *this has been mistaken for that*.

    Thus, when an America says to an Italian, “I’ve brought you this Napa Chardonnay as a quid pro quo for the Cortese di Gavi you gave me last week,” he is believes he is being gracious, while the Italian believes he simply doesn’t know his wines.

  2. Loved you post…..but then I love words….and have been molding them since I first started printing! My writing led to advertising and yes, most certainly words are chosen for “new” inventions and items to set themselves apart from the ordinary. And in the case of the vacuum cleaner instead of suction cleaner, they are most definitely selected to have the right ring to them and avoid any possible misinterpretation or for that matter, misuse.

    I particularly enjoy the automobile term “crossover” when in fact, all of us over the age of 50 know that indeed it’s a station wagon. But unfortunately, station wagon heralds to another time and is not “cool” enough to sell these multi-purpose cars. It has gone the way of the dodo or should I say Edsel?

    Thanks for another great blog, Harry!!

  3. delighted to read your comments on my blog. I am currently writing several blogs on neologisms and their use and misuse in the “new” world. My hunch is that our language is undergoing radical changes – so there is a lot to comment about.


  4. Nice post, Harry!
    Language is indeed a good window into human cognition and behavior, as well as the spread of culture. As you know, I’ve written a similar article to this about how clinical psychologists are attempting to hijack the English language with their own jargon (and if some of my friends are any indication, they’re succeeding. (See http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/caveman-logic/201307/clinical-psychologists-are-destroying-the-language ).
    One comment about your blog: The “verbifying” of hoover and google are both positive examples which may account for why nobody is intervening. I think if the verb “to hoover” meant “to destroy carpet by applying a foul smelling acidic solution”, the Hoover corporation might be busy using social and legal means to stop the corruption of their name.
    Keep writing!

  5. Thank you for your nice comments. Much appreciated. There many ore comments on Language en route , many on science and language.You raised a most interesting pint:what if a product is negative , or has necessary but unpleasant consequences, like some chocolate tasting laxatives.My hunch is that they could enter everyday language. I could imagine people going about their normal affairs but use a laxative trade name like :” why don’t you exlax yourself ” as an aggressive retort ? I shall look for some applications for this proposal from now onwards – and let you know in polite quotes.

  6. Regarding the appropriation of trade names (“Google,” “Hoover”) to serve as everyday, generic terms, I’m reminded of the way Kate Smith ad-libbed the introduction to a television commercial:

    “We’ll be right back after this word from Doeskin Tissues — the very best Kleenex you can buy!”

    Nice post, Harry.

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