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From nom de plume to el cheapo: Pseudo-foreign words

One of the most distinctive characteristics of English is the number of words and phrases it has borrowed – and continues to borrow – from other languages, originally and most notably from Latin and French but now also from every corner of the globe. These words and phrases have been collected together to form From Bonbon to Cha-Cha: The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases by Andrew Delahunty. But not all foreign-looking words are quite what they seem, as is explained by the excerpt below.

A number of words that look like foreign imports are not all that they seem. Some have been formed on the model of an existing foreign word and, while they have the appearance of a loanword, in fact have no equivalent in the supposed source language. Nom de plume is a good example. This term for ‘an assumed name used by a writer instead of their real name, a pen-name’ certainly looks French enough. But it was formed in English from French words in the early 19th century, based on the pattern of the genuinely French nom de guerre, ‘an assumed name under which a person engages in combat or some other activity or enterprise’. Similarly, bon viveur is a pseudo-French coinage, formed from the French words for ‘good’ and ‘living person’ to match the earlier imported phrase bon vivant. The Italian-sounding braggadocio, denoting boastful or arrogant behaviour, was originally the name Edmund Spenser gave to a boastful character in his poem The Faerie Queene. The ending is based on the authentically Italian suffix -occio (suggesting something large of its kind); the first part comes from the English brag or braggart.

Sometimes a foreign word can act as a template for other, often humorous, coinages. Literati, from Latin, dates from the 17th century and refers to well-educated people who are interested in literature. Their modern descendants include the glitterati (fashionable people or celebrities), the chatterati (another term for the chattering classes, intellectual or artistic people who express liberal opinions), and the digerati (computing experts regarded as a class). Sitzkrieg, formed on the analogy of blitzkrieg (literally ‘a lightning war’), was used in English in the 1940s to convey the idea of ‘a sit-down war’, a war, or a phase of a war, in which there is little or no active warfare. The Russian and Yiddish suffix -nik (as in words like Sputnik and kibbutznik) has been used, particularly since the 1950s, to form English words denoting a person associated with a specified thing or quality, such as refusenik, peacenik, beatnik, and no-goodnik.

El is the Spanish definite article, the equivalent of English the, as in El Dorado and El Greco. In the 20th century it has been used in English not only in titles such as El Supremo, but also in colloquial expressions as el cheapo. First recorded in the 1960s, this means ‘very cheap, of poor quality’, the English adjective cheap made to resemble a Spanish word by the addition of an o. The Costa Brava and Costa del Sol have inspired other pseudo-Spanish names of resort areas such as the Costa Geriatrica, describing one largely frequented or inhabited by elderly people.

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2 Responses to “From nom de plume to el cheapo: Pseudo-foreign words”
  1. [...] From nom de plume to el cheapo: Pseudo-foreign words One of the most distinctive characteristics of English is the number of words and phrases it has borrowed – and continues to borrow – from other languages, originally and most notably from Latin and French but now also from every corner of the globe. These words and phrases have been collected together to form From Bonbon to Cha-Cha: The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases by Andrew Delahunty. But not all foreign-looking words are quite what they seem, as is explained by the excerpt Original post by From nom de plume to el cheapo: Pseudo-foreign words [...]

  2. J P Maher says:

    Some of my favorites are:
    -Mock Spanish COALINGA CA: from Coaling A; one of three coaling stations (A, B & C)1880s.
    -Mock Urdu PAKISTAN. The -stan mapped out by Britain for Pashtuns, Afghans, and Kashmiri.
    -Mock X: SOWETO: SOUTH-WEST TOWNSHIP…

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