3 Words English Stole from Other Languages
Whenever humans encounter something new, we need a way to talk about it. Sometimes languages simply add an extra meaning to an existing word (like mouse becoming a pointing device as well as a small rodent); sometimes they steal a word from somebody else. English is notorious for this. “We don't just borrow words,” said James Nicoll in 1990. “On occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
Some of these stolen words are obvious, some barely hint at their distant origins. And many – like these three – have surprising stories to tell.
1. Check and checkmate
When you check your phone, have a check-up at the doctor’s, or hope your progress with English will continue unchecked, you probably don’t think much about the kings of Persia.
The Farsi word Shāh (“king”) was the name of an ancient board game, which became extremely popular in 13th Century Europe. It entered Medieval Latin as “scaccus” – which became “eschès” in Old French, then morphed into the English word: “chess.” When you win a game of chess you announce “checkmate!” which is derived from the Farsi shāh māt – “the king is helpless.”
The king is “in check” when he can’t move. Sometimes your motive for stopping someone moving (through a port or a border … or a checkpoint) might be to make sure they weren’t doing anything wrong. So “check” began to mean not only “to stop,” but also “to inspect.” That’s not the end of Shāh’s impact on English. The French-speaking medieval kings of England used a grid of black and white squares to perform financial calculations with counters. This summary of accounts looked like a chessboard –an eschequier. The finances of the British Government are still called the Exchequer to this day. This is also where checkbook (or chequebook) comes from, and is why, in an American restaurant, you ask for the check at the end of a meal.
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The word “blitz” (an abbreviation of German blitzkrieg – “lightning war”) carries a powerful sense of its history – WWII and the German bombing offensive on Britain between 1940 and 1941.
And yet German strategists rarely used the word blitzkrieg at all (and never did so for the attacks on Britain). Where they did use it, the point of the “lightning” imagery was to suggest not terror from the skies but speed –a rapid land offensive leading to a decisive victory. Of course, when bombs began falling on London, a decisive German victory was exactly what the Allies feared was about to happen, so they started using a word they had picked up to refer to the fate of Poland. By the time it was clear that Britain was undergoing a long siege rather than an abrupt invasion, the word “Blitz” had stuck, picking up a new meaning of “a ferocious attack from the air.”
After the war, the word’s English meaning continued to expand. While “the Blitz” (when capitalised) always refers to the historical event, you’ll hear the word used quite casually meaning something like “to handle a problem in a swift, emphatic way,” or “an intensive campaign”. e.g “I’m going to blitz this cold with vitamin C” “the President’s been on a real media blitz recently – he’s never off TV.”
In 1940, Katharine Brush wrote in the Washington Post: “When the radio talkers make a little mistake in diction, they call it a ‘fluff,’ and when they make a bad one they call it a ‘glitch,’ and I love it.”
Glitch is a rather endearing word, especially when you discover the Yiddish glitshn means “to slip on the ice.” In the 1930s, Yiddish radio flourished across America, running advice shows, news and game shows in both Yiddish and English. We don’t know exactly who first used “glitch” to complain of mistakes or malfunctions in radio broadcasting, but a new medium and a bilingual environment were the perfect conditions for a word to skip from one language to another. From radio, “glitch” moved on to television, with technicians of the 1950s using it to refer to various types of malfunction with the signal or frequency. Once embedded in engineering circles, “glitch” rode the wave of scientific progress all the way to Mars: “Viking II lands with glitch,” announced the St Petersburg Times in 1976, repeating what by now was common astronaut slang for a communication failure. Readers who hadn’t been following the problems of radio and TV workers were so bewildered by the strange word that the paper had to run a follow-up column to explain.
From the space age “glitch” moved easily to the digital age, expressing anything and everything that can go wrong with technology.
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