What a bummer! Misbehaving English loan words

Anyone who doubts that writing in British English and American English are different skills should be referred to the business article I read the other day. There was no doubt the author was living stateside. The pièce de résistance (a French loan which has almost entirely lost its original meaning, by the way, but that’s another story…) was the I’m-not-sure-it-is-business-appropriate phrase ‘What a bummer’!

To steal a phrase from the nasty British villain in Disney’s ‘Bolt’, this colloquialism ‘irked me’. But, then, I have already discussed my strange reactions to the American (mis)use of the words ‘bum’ and ‘fanny’ – their US application just doesn’t sound contextually correct to a native British English speaker.

Of course US cultural saturation extends to a degree which means that everyone understands what ‘What a bummer!’ is supposed to mean. US cultural and linguistic saturation may be ubiquitous, but there are plenty of examples of it getting slightly mangled in translation.

One of my favourite examples of badly-applied English loan words is the German use of ‘handy’ to refer to a mobile phone – or should that be to refer to a ‘cell’?

The Local, an English-language online Spanish magazine, has a guide to ‘twisted English’ which gives some great examples: including the wonderful ‘hacer footing’ (to go jogging) and the Spanish reinterpretation of ‘freaky’ as a noun (as in: you are such a friki).

Perhaps the best example of the poorly-executed loan word, however, is the German use of ‘bodybag’. It may conjure up macabre images from glossy US TV shows for you or me, but for the average German it conjures up images of a rucksack (backpack) / bum bag (fanny pack) hybrid. German for ‘body bag’ is actually ‘Leichensack’ (literally: hearse bag).

Buoyed by such misappropriations one has to wonder whether the French have got the right idea about protecting their language from such linguistic interlopers. Although I can’t help feeling English would be a far poorer language if we did institute an Académie Anglais Britannique… Yesterday’s word of the day from the OED is a case in point: naches. Of Yiddish extraction, via America, it is the noun used to describe the pride or pleasure one feels at the achievements of one’s children. That this beautiful and powerful concept can’t otherwise be expressed in a single word in English does raise some questions about our national character… and demonstrates how enriched a language can become when it is open to change.

Perhaps I should be using the phrase ‘What a bummer’ in business writing after all…

Of course, even in French, the odd borrowed word slips through: technology and IT are two clear fields of exception when it comes to French linguistic protectionism. My favourite of these unashamedly-appropriated words is wifi – which, when read, seems like a direct borrow. But, when heard, is barely comprehensible: Yes, but what has that corner being whiffey got to do with my wi-fi access?


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