What is a Calque?

By Mark Nichol

One way in which the English language is enriched is the acquisition of calques, or literal translations of foreign words and phrases. This post lists and defines calques from various languages.

From Chinese comes brainwash, meaning “manipulate someone to change their beliefs,” from the notion of one’s brain being cleaned out and the information stored within replaced with other data, as well as “lose face,” meaning “suffer from a loss of dignity or prestige” and related to “save face,” which means “preserve one’s dignity or prestige.” (The Chinese and Japanese languages each have nearly one hundred phrases alluding to face in this sense.) Another calque from Chinese is “paper tiger,” which, in reference to a depiction of a fierce animal that is itself harmless, metaphorically refers to an empty threat.

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Calques based on French terms include “flea market,” from the notion that items bought used at open-air sales are flea ridden, and rhinestone, from a French term meaning “Rhine pebble,” so called because the imitation gems were invented near the Rhine River. Meanwhile, the expression “That goes without saying,” meaning “That’s obvious,” is from a French expression.

Worldview, which literally refers to one’s perspective about the world, is a calque of the German term weltanschauung, which is itself sometimes employed in English. Because of the influence of Germany on science and philosophy as well as politics, English has also borrowed such translations of German terms as antibody (“a substance produced in cells that protects the body from disease”) and “thought experiment” (“an experiment conducted in one’s mind”).

From Latin, English acquired the calques commonplace, meaning “obvious or commonly found,” the phrase “in a nutshell,” meaning “in brief” (from the notion that what is said will “fit” in a small space), and “wisdom tooth,” which refers to the hindmost teeth, so called because they do not appear until one is at or near adulthood.

Spanish is the source of the calques “blue blood,” meaning “aristocrat” (from the notion that people of high social standing spend little time outside and, because they are pale, their veins are visible), “fifth column,” which refers to those within one country who engage in espionage or sabotage on behalf of that country’s enemy, and the phrase “moment of truth” (“critical time”), which originally referred in Spanish to the climax of a bullfight.

English includes calques in other languages as well, and in turn it has inspired many calques in other tongues around the world.

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4 Responses to “What is a Calque?”

  • ApK

    The reason behind “blue bloods” is surprising. I never would have guessed.
    A BTW, DAW, the Army may use NBC, but the Navy, at least when I was in, used CBR: Chemical, Biological, Radiological.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Could it be that “armed to the teeth” is a calque from some other language?
    I it also interesting about the similarity between “calque” and “calculus”, which has to do with the teeth.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “The Fifth Column” comes the times of the Spanish Civil War. At that time, invading armies marched into their targets in “four columns”, side-by-side, perhaps with four battalions, four brigades, four regiments, or four divisions at the front (in the vanguard), and more troops following those.
    The U.S. Army, and its allies, have been associated with the number four also. You can look up the details, but the four main components of an army have long been labeled G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4.
    I don’t know the details of the other three, but “G-2” is the “intelligence corps”, or simply “intelligence” (using an old meaning of the word “intelligence”).
    Thus, when someone says, “Give me some G-2”, what is meant is “Give me some information, preferably the inside kind.”
    In the American military, the G-2 corps consists of the DIA, Army Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Naval Intelligence, Marine Corps Intelligence, and by extension, the NSA, CIA, NRO, and so forth:
    “The Intelligence Community”.
    In the world of technology/engineering, the word “intelligence” has been superseded by “information”, as defined by Claude Shannon in his works in Information Theory.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In German, they still use “ABC” = Atomic, Biological, and Chemical warfare”, drawn straight from English.
    This is despite the fact that decades ago, we changed it to “NBC” = Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical warfare”, as being more accurate.
    Of course, with the Iron Curtain running right down the middle of Germany, and with the armies and air forces on both sides armed to their teeth, ABC warfare was of great concern to the Germans, the Austrians, and the Swiss.
    The latter two countries were and are neutral ones, but they are both downwind from Germany concerning radioactive fallout and other nasty products of a (hypothetical) war in Germany between the West and the East.

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