Friday, 3 December 2010


Loan words are curious animals. Most of them are harmless enough. Kimono means more or less the same in English as it does in Japanese. But now and again, you come across an unusual specimen that has come to mean something quite different in its new environment from what it meant in its original tongue.

I recall, for instance, the surprise on both sides when, living in France a number of years ago, I happened to remark upon an instance of déjàvu. I naturally assumed that, since the word was French (literally meaning 'already seen'), I could simply lift it back across the linguistic divide with no harmful side effects. To my surprise, my French interlocutors had no idea what I was talking about. Was it my accent? I tried a few more times in as un-English a way as I could. Incomprehension persisted. Eventually, I had to explain the concept to them, which they immediately understood. It turned out the French don't describe déjàvu as déjàvu; only English-speakers do that.

I have recently come across another linguistic borrowing in the same vein, but exported from English rather than imported this time . I speak of the use speakers of Asian languages make of the word "fighting". It tends to be used alone as a kind of exclamation and its meaning seems to be located, as far as I can gather, somewhere between, "Chin up!", "Go for it!" and "Hang in there!". I first met it in a Korean TV show called Full House (unrelated to the 80s American sitcom) in which the heroine would say it frequently when facing a difficult situation or trying to encourage someone. I have since heard it on the lips of a number of my students when facing exams or when their course workload is weighing heavily on them.

What interests and amuses me not a little about all this is that they expect me to understand what they mean because, of course, it's an English word. Which I do, but only because I have some acquaintance with Asian people and Asian culture. It doesn't occur to them that an Australian wouldn't pat his mate on the back if he'd had a bad day or was facing some difficulty and say in a bracing tone, "Fighting! Fighting!" just as it never occurred to me that the French wouldn't describe déjàvu as déjàvu.

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