Language

When English takes on new meanings abroad

Foreigners beware: What you think of as an English term may be something made up entirely by your fellow foreigners.

Languages develop; always have, and always will. New terms and words develop; words and terms are borrowed from one language into another. My high school Latin teacher often derided English for being “impure”, and he does have a point: there are remarkably many borrowed words in the world’s lingua franca.

That has cultural and historical reasons, of course, as does the fact that German ceased in dominance in the 20th century, as English rose to conquer the world. The borrowing goes mostly the other way now, and English terms fill our lives like never before. You could argue that crappy English is now the world’s most spoken language.

An interesting side effect is how foreign languages make up their own terms in English. That’s right – importing words is not enough, they even have the audacity to alter it, and often don’t even notice it themselves. This means that in Denmark we speak words in English to each other which no native speaker would have heard before.

You have to be bilingual, and somewhat of a geek, to notice these things. Well, here I am. I can only speak for Denmark, but I would imagine the phenomenon exists elsewhere too.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Soft-ice. You know, the creamy ice cream featured in a Sundae? In American English, it’s known as soft serve, but each country has its own term, apparently, with Germanic Northern Europe tending towards a variety of soft ice.

Body. This word entered my vocabulary with fatherhood. Known in English as a onesie or a romper, it’s what you put on your baby, right after the diaper. It took me a while to discern that the Danish term body probably derives from body stocking; a term which applies only to adult lingerie, however. Oh, and we pronounce it “buddy”.

Ghettoblaster. Not strictly a foreign invention, however what is known elsewhere as a boombox the Danes refer to only as a ghettoblaster (in one word). According to urbandictionary.com, ghetto blaster was a pejorative nickname, “reflecting the belief that they are popular in poor inner-city neighborhoods (ghettos), especially those populated by black Americans.”

Stationcar. A type of car, known in English speaking countries mostly as station wagon or estate. It’s not that station wagon is an unknown term, but for some reason that was not enough. You can see the logic of calling it a station car, and most people would be able to guess what you are referring to. But that doesn’t make it correct.

Feel free to add your favorite examples.

Originally posted on kennethbirch.wordpress.com on March 12, 2018.

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