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Book Review: A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English by Chloe Rhodes

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A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi” could be defined as a dictionary, with its alphabetical list of foreign words now in common English use. But it's much more… It is a pleasure to read but also well-researched and provides colorful descriptions of how words got their meaning and how they may have changed once brought into English usage.

Some words hold their meaning through the transition to English, even through the centuries, such as "ad lib," for off-the-cuff comments, originally from Latin, and “al dente," meaning “to the tooth” in Italian.

The term “al fresco,” which we take to mean “in the fresh air,” as a reference to outdoor dining, was an Italian slang term originally meaning “in prison.” You may recall American gangster movies referring to prisoners being “in the cooler.” If you want to stay out of jail the next time you dine outdoors in Italy, use “all’aperto” instead of "al fresco."

Other terms have fallen out of use such as the Russian phrase “agitprop,” used a century ago as a combination of the words agitation and propaganda. Perhaps today’s balanced journalism has made the term unnecessary.

While most English words found in this book seem to be of Latin or French origin, not all of today’s words came from Europe. The common words “bungalow,” “dungarees,” and “khaki” have their origin in Hindi. And we can thank the Chinese for the term “ketchup,” originally “kichap” meaning “fish brine.” Once Americans added tomatoes to prevent scurvy, traditional ketchup was created in 1876, and became a popular condiment in British and American diets.

“Feng shui,” now a term decorators use to tell you where to place your sofa and bed for the best energy, originally meant “wind and water” in Mandarin Chinese, and did indeed refer to placing objects where they would aid the flow of “chi,” or life force.

A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”  will also teach you the surprising origin of the word “algebra” and how, at least for a while it had more to do with broken bones than with math. You’ll also learn that “berserk” people were originally ferocious warriors.

“Hubris” is an old word that fits a new crime, with the banking and lending industry’s recent disaster. Hubris in ancient Greece was considered the greatest of all sins… “A terrible pride that caused harm to others … egotistical acts of vanity and exhibitions of immorality, arrogance and lack of humility.” Yes, in a word, our recent financial crisis was an act of hubris.

Exercise your linguistic skills and toss out the word "sangfroid" as a compliment next time you’re around a person who keeps their composure in a crisis, and raise a glass to toast them. The Swedish term “skol” is equivalent to “cheers,” and originally referred to a shell or bowl, not a skull, although Vikings did drink from whatever was handy…

This book, and the author’s wit in conveying how these expressions came into use is, in itself, a “verbum satis sapienti,” a Latin phrase you’ll recognize as “A word is enough for the wise.” Enough said.

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