Being a teacher of both French and German has unique challenges, but also distinct advantages. I tell my students that the English language came about in the following way — some Angles and Saxons were living in what is now England and put a form of German into a bag; the Normans invaded, conquered, and added a form of French to the bag; it all got shaken up over time, and out came English. That's overly simplified, of course, and I do go over the society structure that explains why certain categories of words are Germanic and others are more French. It helps my students to see how we can have so many words in our language that resemble either the French or German words they are learning.
The blending of those two languages is what helps to give English the breadth and depth of verbal possibilities. Exactly how large is our English vocabulary? Here's some information from the site of the Oxford Dictionaries:
The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.... This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.
You would think that, with a vocabulary that large, we would have ways to express just about anything. Through the years the English language has borrowed many words that add a certain je ne sais quoi to our vocabulary. Some borrowings are used well, and others, unfortunately aren't. I cringe every time I hear various faux pas.
An expression that many love to use is coup de grâce, which literally means "a blow of mercy," that kindly ends suffering. In essence it means "a mercy killing." The correct pronunciation is basically /coo-duh-grahs/. (Please note that the p at the end of coup is silent and the c in grâce is pronounced like an s.) When (mis)pronounced /coop-duh-grahs/ it means "a cup of mercy." When (mis)pronounced /coo-duh-grah/ it means "a blow of fat" (gras, with a silent s). And a merciless killing happens each time a person says /coup-duh-grah/, which is "a cup of fat"!
Ok, I know that I'm a French teacher and that most listeners don't catch those subtle nuances, but still! Why use a word, only to misuse it?! I actually have to admit a bit of Schadenfreude (joy at someone else's misfortune) when I hear someone trying to impress others by using coup de grâce, only to unwittingly hit them with a cup of fat.
Recently my dear wife sent me a link to a site with 38 Wonderful Foreign Words We Could Use in English on mentalfloss.com. Some of the meanings and uses of the words were humorous, and others I could have happily lived out the rest of my days without ever seeing. I decided to do some websearching to see what other words I could find. The more I found, the more I knew I wanted that to be the topic for this week.
I'm posting my favorites in alphabetical order. Some of the expressions give fascinating glimpses into the culture of the people who speak that language. It's strange to think that some ideas are important enough they would have a succinct way of expressing them! I hope you enjoy at least some of these as much as I did.
To look worse after getting a haircut
Appel du vide (French)
It is literally "the call of the void." It's the expression used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places, for example when close to the edge of a cliff or atop the Eiffel Tower.
A face badly in need of a fist
Loosely translates to "extra stomach." It is generally used to describe a woman who always has room for dessert.
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