Calques: Linguistic Immigrants in English

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English vocabulary includes thousands of words that originated in languages other than Old English.

Some of these linguistic immigrants never quite acculturate. They continue to sound foreign, but some English-speakers find them useful in particular contexts.

Schadenfreude (German) taking delight in the misfortune of others.

bon vivant (French) a person fond of good living; a gourmand.

mutatis mutandis (Latin) ‘things having been changed that have to be changed.’

mi casa su casa (Spanish) make yourself at home (literally, my house [is] your house
This one has become so familiar that there is a US television ad that shows a man embracing a towel because of its fresh smell. A woman’s voice is heard asking, “Isn’t that the dog’s towel?” The man looks at the dog, then goes back to enjoying the scent of the towel as a voice-over says, “Mi towel, su towel.”

tsundoku (Japanese) letting books pile up without reading them.

Many other words that originate in other languages, however, quickly fit in, preserving their original form, but losing any suggestion of foreignness. Here are some examples of words that retain spellings the same or almost the same as their foreign originals.

crime, chaplain, garage, royal, battle, courage, fruit, and special.

armada, barricade, canyon, coyote, mosquito, ranch, and vigilante.

alto, broccoli, fresco, ghetto, grotto, piano, stucco, and violin.

bale, spool, stripe, easel, landscape, sketch, cookie, booze, and waffle.

tsar/czar, babushka, balaclava, beluga, and vodka.

A third kind of foreign immigrant is the calque.

In French, a calque is a copy of something. The French verb calquer means “to trace,” as in tracing a design.

A calque is a word or phrase that has been copied word-for-word from one language into another. For example, the term “loan word” is a calque from German lehnwort.

Like loan words or borrowings, calques are words and phrases that have come into English from a different language. The difference is that borrowings or loan words come more or less as they are. Calques first attire themselves in English.

A timely calque is antibody from German Antikörper. As most of you probably have heard by now, an antibody is a protein produced by B-lymphocytes that binds to a specific antigen.

Another calque often in the news is geopolitics: the study of the effects of geography, especially economic geography, on international politics. This one is from Swedish geopolitik.

A writing term that I thought must surely have come from Spanish, in fact originated in German: magic realism. It was coined in German as Magischer Realismus to refer to the anti-expressionist artistic movement known as New Objectivity that developed in the 1920s. Applied to literature, the term has become closely associated with Latin American writing. The Spanish calque is realismo magico.

Another calque for writers comes from Czech psát do šupliku, “write for the drawer.” This is an expression that developed along with the Russian word samizdat, which refers to the practice of underground publishing of state-proscribed materials, often by hand, and passed around from reader to reader. In English, writing for the drawer can refer to any writing not intended for immediate publication.

An expression new to me is crab mentality, as in these examples:

That pretty much sums up the crab mentality that underlies the climate change denier’s championing of business as usual. (The Guardian)

“Does Your Team Suffer from the “Crab Mentality”? (headline, consulting site)

Crab mentality is a calque from Tagalog isip talangka. It derives from the behavior of crabs in a pot. As one tries to escape over the side, it’s pulled down by the others in the pot. Applied to people, it refers to the unfortunate tendency of group members to resent or obstruct the progress of a colleague seen to be rising above the performance of the others.

Another calque I’ve recently come across is death cleaning, from Danish do städning. It sounds like it might mean the clearing out of a house after someone has died, but that’s not it. Death cleaning is the considerate act of getting rid of one’s unneeded possessions while still living, so that someone else won’t have to do it later. Searching the term will bring up helpful checklists for folks sixty-five years and up.

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1 thought on “Calques: Linguistic Immigrants in English”

  1. An addition: Brainwashing is a calque of the Mandarin xi nao, which literally means “brain washing” or “wash (the) brain”. Picked that up in military histories of the Korean War, but may be of particular interest nowadays!

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