The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 30, 2011.

“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

The origin of this quote is uncertain, but its accuracy is not in doubt: As languages go, English takes what it needs from wherever it can.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words that make up English, the vast majority come from either Germanic or Latin sources.

Most of our short one- and two-syllable words for common objects, actions and qualities (house, hat, run, sing, green, etc.) and basic bits of grammar (the, one, and, in, etc.) are Germanic.

Most of our longer words — ones that have a root and a prefix or suffix — are Latin, or Greek. These would include such patriotic words as independence, constitution and government, and such workaday words as computer, television and refrigerator.

But English is not at all particular about where it picks up its words: The world’s languages are just one big smorgasbord (that one’s from Swedish) for our mother tongue to nibble from.

Consider these words: robot, samovar, intelligentsia, tundra and mammoth. Perfectly ordinary English words — except they come from the Slavic family of languages.

Arabic gives us admiral, alcohol, cotton, sofa, zenith and algebra (OK, some people may wish they would have kept that last one).

In addition to smorgasbord, Swedish gave us flounder and ombudsman. Cousin Norwegian donated ski, slalom and lemming.

Hungarian contributed coach (the vehicle, not the guy with the whistle around his neck), goulash and something that usually goes into that dish, paprika.

From the Far East, Chinese, via Malay, sends us ketchup, or catsup, if that’s how you want to spell it. Chow (the dog) and chow (slang for food) also come from Chinese, but from different source words. Japanese kicked in karaoke, kamikaze, rickshaw, futon, hibachi and sudoku. The languages of the Indian subcontinent donated bungalow, cashmere, khaki, shampoo, pundit and pajamas.

African languages give us words including banjo, banana, chimpanzee and marimba; Hebrew lent jubilee, behemoth, cherub and Satan, as well as Satan’s alias Beelzebub. (“Devil” we get from Greek.)

Then there are the words people just make up that find a permanent place in English. Some of these are portmanteaus, which is a fancy way of saying two words combined into one, such as “smog,” “docudrama” and “infomercial.” Others are as old as Shakespeare, who is credited with coining fashionable, madcap, monumental and lackluster, among several hundred other words and phrases we use today.

And there are funny made-up words, words like “embiggen,” first used on an episode of “The Simpsons.” What does it mean? You probably don’t even need context to figure it out, but here’s the quote: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

Word origins from the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary.