The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Spelling Conventions > Foreign Loanwords and Loan Translations
Foreign Loanwords and Loan Translations
What are foreign loanwords and loan translations?
English takes many of its words from different languages around the world. These words are broadly known as borrowings, and they are subdivided into two categories: loanwords and loan translations.
A loanword is a term taken from another language and used without translation; it has a specific meaning that (typically) does not otherwise exist in a single English word. Sometimes the word’s spelling or pronunciation (or both) is slightly altered to accommodate English orthography, but, in most cases, it is preserved in its original language.
A loan translation (also known as a calque), on the other hand, is a word or phrase taken from another language but translated (either in part or in whole) to corresponding English words while still retaining the original meaning.
English is influenced by a variety of different languages, and, for that reason, it has a huge number of loanwords, many of which are so entrenched in the language that they are rarely even considered to be of foreign origin. In some cases, the meaning of the word when used in English is slightly different or more specific than in the language from which it is taken, but this is not always the case.
A huge amount of words now considered part of the standard English lexicon are technically loanwords from Latin, Greek, or French. Many of these borrowings occurred during the formative years of modern English, and have since been assimilated through changes in spelling and pronunciation into the words we use every day. There are far too many of these loanwords to go over individually. Instead, let’s look at some examples that best demonstrate how loanwords are borrowed without (or with very little) change in their original spelling, pronunciation, or meaning:
Language of origin
Notes on spelling, pronunciation, and meaning
Literally “fond of,” in English it refers to an ardent fan, supporter, or devotee of some subject or activity.
In French, the term refers to someone who is a lover of some activity. In English, it is used to describe someone who engages in a study, sport, or other activity as a pastime rather than in a professional capacity.
In German, Angst generally means “fear or anxiety”; in English, it is used to describe an acute feeling of nonspecific anxiety, anguish, or apprehension, usually without a discernible cause.
Plural of the Latin bacterium, meaning “a small stick,” used to describe the appearance of bacteria when first identified in the early 19th century.
From the French ballette, literally “small dance,” referring to a theatrical, classical dance characterized by precise conventional steps and graceful movements.
In English, café (also spelled cafe, without the accent mark) only refers to a small restaurant in which one can buy food and drinks, usually coffee.
In French, café (itself a loanword from Italian caffé) primarily refers to coffee itself, rather than an establishment that serves it.
Adapted from Chinese ch’ao mein, meaning “fried noodles.” In English, it typically refers to a dish consisting of chopped vegetables and meat that is served with these noodles.
Adapted from the Dutch koekje, literally meaning “small cake,” to refer to small, dry, usually crisp cakes made from sweetened dough.
Adapted from German Delikatessen, literally meaning “fancy food; a delicacy.” In English, it is used to refer to small shops or eateries, known especially for selling chilled, cooked meats. It is often shortened to deli, which is also used as an adjective to describe such meats.
Literally meaning “and (et) the rest (cetera),” it is used more figuratively in English to mean “and other unspecified things of the same type of class” or “and so forth.”
Literally “false step,” used in English to mean “a breach in decorum, etiquette, or good manners.”
A type of poem that traditionally juxtaposes two disparate ideas or images in 17 on (Japanese sound units), separated in three phases of 5, 7, and 5. In English, on was translated to syllables, so haikus in English are typically written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively.
An anglicisation of the Hindi spelling jangal, meaning “a desert, wasteland, forest, or uncultivated area.” In English, it refers to an area of dense tropical trees and vegetation.
Literally “child garden,” referring in both languages to a program or class for young children serving as an introduction to elementary school.
Literally meaning “male animal” in Spanish, in English it is used to describe a tough, masculine, or virile person, especially a man.
Literally “mode of operating,” it refers in English to a person’s standard method or manner of working (used in law enforcement to describe a criminal’s or suspect’s behavior).
Adapted from the term Nudel, with the same meaning (a thin, ribbon-like piece of pasta).
Literally meaning “work,” it is more commonly used in English to refer to the sum of work produced by a creative person (a writer, painter, composer, etc.) over the course of a lifetime.
Literally meaning “man of the woods,” in English it refers to arboreal apes with shaggy, reddish-brown hair.
The Hindi term pajama originated from Persian payjama, which perhaps influenced the standard British English spelling, pyjamas.
In Spanish, this term refers to an inner courtyard of a house that has no roof. While it shares this meaning in English, it more often refers to a typically paved outdoor space adjoined to a house used for dining and recreation.
In both languages, piano primarily refers to the musical instrument with a manual keyboard that triggers hammers to strike metal wires that then produce the sound. It is short for the longer Italian word pianoforte.
Literally meaning “first lady,” referring to the leading female singer in an opera company. It is more commonly used in English to refer to a self-centered, temperamental, petulant person.
quid pro quo
Literally, “something for something.” In English, it is used to mean “something done in exchange or compensation for something else.”
Adapted from the Swedish term smörgåsbord, meaning “open-faced sandwich table.” It refers specifically to a buffet-style meal consisting of a variety of different dishes. By extension in English, it is used figuratively to describe a wide variety of different options or elements, as in, “The festival features a smorgasbord of musical talents.”
In both languages, this term refers to a broad-brimmed hat with a high crown.
Adapted from the Japanese term taikun, meaning “great lord, prince, or high commander,” a title used by foreigners when referring to the Japanese shogunate. In English, it was anglicised as tycoon, and it now means a wealthy, powerful, and influential businessperson or magnate.
Literally “tasty things,” this term refers to the savory taste sensation occurring in broths and meats.
Literally meaning “watchman,” it is used in English to refer to a person who pursues and punishes suspected criminals outside of the law.
Loan Translations (Calques)
While loanwords are used with little or no change to the spelling (or phonetic spelling) of the original word, loan translations are instead an idiomatic word or phrase that is translated literally into English, but used with the same or similar meaning as the original.
There are far fewer loan translations in English than there are loanwords, but there are still too many to include in this section, so let’s just look at a few common examples:
Language of origin
Original word or phrase
Notes on meaning
capelli d'angelo, literally “hair of an angel”
Very thin, long pasta. In English, it is more commonly written as angel hair pasta.
xi nao, literally meaning “wash brain”
“Calculated, forcible indoctrination meant to replace a person’s existing beliefs, convictions, or attitudes.”
Originally referring to a literary passage that is generally applicable, in modern English it simply refers to that which is ordinary, common, uninteresting, or unremarkable.
This term originated in the Roman Catholic Church, referring to an official whose role was to deliberately argue against the canonization of potential saint, in order to expose any possible character flaws of the candidate or weaknesses of evidence in favor of canonization. In modern English, the term refers to anyone who argues against something either for the sake of argument alone, or to help clarify or determine the validity of the opposing cause (rather than due to personal opinions or convictions).
marché aux puces, literally “market of the fleas”
A type of informal bazaar consisting of vendors who rent space to sell or barter various goods or merchandise. The term is popularly thought to refer to a particular market in Paris known as the marché aux puces, so-called because most of the items being sold were of such age that they were likely to have gathered fleas over time.
it goes without saying
cela/ça va sans dire
This expression has the same meaning in English as it does in French, that is, “it is or should be generally understood or accepted as self-evident.”
let the buyer beware
This axiom holds that the buyer is responsible for assessing the quality of goods or services before purchasing them. While this loan translation is a common cliché in English, the Latin term itself is also sometimes used as a loanword.
The phrase means “humiliation” in Chinese, but in English it means “to do something resulting in the loss of status, reputation, or respect from others.” The related term save face comes from this meaning in English, rather than as a loan translation from Chinese.
Originally meaning “the work for which an artist or craftsman is granted the rank of master in a guild or academy,” it is used in modern English to refer to any creation that is considered a person’s greatest work or is of outstanding quality.
moment of truth
el momento de verdad
The original Spanish phrase was used in bullfighting to describe the moment at which the matador makes the final, fatal sword thrust into the bull. In English, it more generally refers to a critically decisive or important moment that will test a person’s character or resolve, or determine the outcome of something.
Originally a movement of French cinema in the 1960s, the phrase became popularised as a name for a certain style of music in the late 1970s and early ’80s, similar to punk rock but characterized by more melodic music and, often, the use of synthesizers.
A dense tropical forest in an area of high annual rainfall.
rest in peace
requiescat in pace, literally “may he or she begin to rest in peace”
Said of someone who has passed away, and commonly written on tombstones.
One of the four rearmost molar teeth, so named due to their appearance at the onset of adulthood, usually between age 17–25.
Weltanschauung, literally “world perception”
An overall conception of life, the world, and humanity’s place therein.
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