English is a reasonably (or, more accurately, an unreasonably) complex language. I remember being told while in college that if all the rules of English were put into one volume the size of a phone book, the exceptions to those rules would take up three dozen volumes of the same size. Having been a user of my native tongue for many years and having visited and spoken with other people in other languages, I find this to be entirely an earned characterization. Further, that elusive thing we call communication often fails – even when both the speaker and listener are grounded in the same language. Everyone uses language in their own idiosyncratic manner – perhaps none more so than I, myself! Consequently, what often passes for communication is at least one or more misunderstandings, mistaken presumptions and differing interpretations of what was said, heard and meant. Add to that the inclusion of words and phrases transposed into our own vernacular from other modern tongues and you have, at once, the raison d’etre for the volume at hand, The Facts On File Dictionary Of Foreign Words and Phrases.
English, as we insist on calling the language many of us speak here in the United States (much to the chagrin of the English!) is a language made up from bits and pieces of many other languages and, over centuries of changing linguistic needs, cultural shifts and natural colloquial and semantic evolution that have combined to promote ongoing change. What once were foreign phrases are now accepted elements of our very own as documented by their inclusion in the ever expanding Oxford English Dictionary. The sole purpose of language is to either accomplish or obfuscate communication. Effective communication is certainly more apt to occur if more of the words and terms used are understood, generally, in common between speakers and listeners. The elements of other, particularly other modern languages makes this goal all-the-more challenging.
Martin H. Masner is an Englishman who has compiled a few other dictionaries including the Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes, Wordsworth Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, and the Learner’s Dictionary of English Idioms.
This book is arranged alphabetically, beginning with abacus and ending with zombie with several hundred words and expressions of foreign source that have found their way into some more-or-less common American and English utilization. Each entry includes a definition of the word or phrase in English, the language of origin, the meaning in the original language (a particularly enlightening and frequently entertaining revelation), the part of speech, the correct pronunciation and examples of quotations to illustrate usage.
This is one of those books that is not intended as a volume to sit and read through as one would a good novel or history. Rather, it is exactly what it’s title suggests – it is a dictionary – a reference work intended to be available when you want or need to look something specific up. On the other hand, some of the entries are SO engaging, that I have gone through most of it by leaving it around and picking it up, opening it to random pages, and reading a few entries whenever the mood strikes me. Over the space of a month or so, in this fashion I managed to read most of it. I will cite a couple of examples, though I don’t think that any chosen sampling really captures the total impact of this volume. However, to satisfy the needs of those who do require specific examples, try these:
meum et tuum (then spelled phonetically with symbols), LATIN [mine and yours] noun phrase legal term for the principal of private property., or
corniche (again, spelled phonetically) FRENCH [from cornice], noun a coastal road built along the edge of a cliff and often commanding panoramic views: “I can’t very well ride out alone. A solitary amazon swallowing the dust and the salt spray of the Corniche promenade would attract too much attention (Joseph Conrad, The Arrow of Gold, 1919.)
Now that’s a far cry from the molding around the top of the walls where they join the ceiling in your living room, N’est pas?
This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to lovers of language and valuers of clear communication, it has a good deal to offer. Handy, in it’s own admittedly odd way.