Words we use: From Europe

Words we use: From Europe

Words we useBefore continuing our journey by heading even further afield, our series of articles looking at the origins of words English has adopted from other languages continues with a final overview of the remaining languages of Europe we have not yet considered which together have given us some of our most familiar words.

Even the other principal languages of the British Isles – namely Welsh and both Scots and Irish Gaelic – have contributed some words to English, of which the Scots clan, loch and plaid, Welsh cwm (‘a rounded valley’), and Irish lough, banshee, ceilidh and leprechaun are probably the most obvious. Here, however, we also find cromlech (a standing stone or stone circle, from Welsh crwm ‘arched, rounded’), machair (low lying coastal grassland, from Scots) and caoine (an Irish funeral lament, literally meaning ‘song’). Bard is also a Gaelic term, equally credited to both Irish and Scots, as is bog (from bogach, ‘swap’) and galore (from either Irish go leór or Scots gu leòir, ‘enough’, ‘to sufficiency’).

Back on the continent, the Dutch language has given us an unusual mix of fairly recognisable words (monsoon, gherkin, soya, maelstrom) alongside several much more obscure terms which have nonetheless made their way into the language: kloof (literally, ‘cleft’), a word a deep gorge or ravine; poffertje, a small doughnut; and woonerf (‘residential ground’), an unusual word for a residential road fitted with speed-reducing devices.

Some much more familiar words have been borrowed from the Scandinavian languages, amongst them fjord, slalom, krill, ski and lemming from Norwegian, and Swedish orienteering, ombudsman (from ombud, ‘commissioner’), smorgasbord (from smörgås, ‘open sandwich’, and bord, ‘table’) and tungsten (literally ‘heavy stone’). Gauntlet, as in ‘to run the gauntlet’, also comes from Swedish (gatlopp, ‘passageway’), but has been very much altered over time.

Heading into Eastern Europe, Polish has given English babka (or baba), a rum sponge cake, from the Polish for ‘old woman’, and mazurka, the traditional dance of the Mazur people. Confusingly, the dance called the polka derives from the Czech word for a Polish woman, whilst Czech is also the origin of semtex, the plastic explosive named after the Czechoslovakian town of Semtín where it was manufactured, and robot (from the Czech robota, ‘forced labour’), which first appeared in the title of a 1920 Czech play. From Serbo-Croat, the official language of Former Yugoslavia, English has taken slivovitz, a dry plum brandy, and cravat, adopted via French from the local word for ‘Croat’, Hrvat.

Of all Eastern European languages, however, Hungarian has probably given us the most familiar selection of words, including goulash, paprika, hussar and czardas, a fast-paced dance. Coach, meanwhile, was adopted into English via French but is descended from the Hungarian kocsi (from Kocs, a Hungarian town), whilst one theory on the origin of the phrase itsy-bitsy, finally, states that it may in fact be based on a Hungarian phrase, ici-pici, meaning ‘tiny bit’.   Paul A. Jones © 2010

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