Saturday, April 14, 2007

Eating Words

Q. At what point do words become a solid piece of the language? Everyone knows hola and uses it on a regular basis, but it's still considered Spanish.
Kate/Leelanau School,
Glen Arbor, MI

A. I don't think that there's a time limit for transference of foreign terms into English. When words stop being foreign and are considered just as English as anything else can be a slow process or a fast process. It depends on a number of external factors.

But I have noticed a few related things that take place when a word is fully assimilated. One is that these words stop appearing in print with italics or quotation marks when they are finally welcomed into the club. They also eventually lose any accent marks that we don’t use in English.

Another sign is that they stop being defined in parentheses; they are simply accepted as familiar, not treated as if they were illegal aliens.

Finally, when the assimilation process is complete, they will show up in an English dictionary filed alphabetically with all the other English words. An example would be bete noire. Those who know what it means treat it as if they were saying something like the bogeyman. Other assimilated terms include habeas corpus, genre, kimono, igloo, macho, heuristic, angst, gulag, klutz, paparazzi, and impasse.

To find more on the process, try using the search terms assimilation or borrowing.

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