The world is Englishing
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Apr 13 12:59:47 UTC 2005
Meanwhile: The world is Englishing
C.J. Moore International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
LEYSIN, Switzerland Alongside the cross-country ski track in this mountain
village extends a wide piste where very fit people on long narrow skis
pursue an activity known in French as "le skating." Needless to say, like
so many ing words disseminated across the globe, "le skating" bears
absolutely no relationship to what is meant in English by the word
"skating." . Somewhere in the modern human psyche lies an urge to create
trendy and interesting words of this -ing type, in grammatical terms known
as gerunds, or verbal nouns. Let's call this creative process "gerunding."
. Yes, I know the word gerunding doesn't exist, but since when did such a
concern deter those who go gerunding? The whole point is to make up words
which sound and look English. It matters not a bit that they are foreign
inventions, often unrecognizable to a native English speaker. . Smoking,
footing, bronzing, shampooing, pressing, lifting, mobbing, standing -
these are just a few of the words that have found their way across Europe
in curious distortions of their original sense. . Take the strange
history of the word "pressing." In its British context, pressing was a
service provided for those who wore a uniform or smart clothing. "Shall I
have your trousers pressed, sir?" the butler might say, before going off
to see to the damp ironing of the garment. . Building on this
association, around the 1930s "un pressing" entered the French language in
the sense of a dry-cleaning service, and has remained on the French street
ever since - if never in the Dictionnaire de l'Acadmie Franaise.
But nowadays "pressing" has been given a completely new life in soccer
commentaries on radio and television around Europe, referring to one team
"putting pressure" on the other. The only country where you won't hear
such a gerund is Britain. . Where does this kind of neologism come from?
And how does it arise and become widespread without any relationship to
standard English? By what mysterious process did European properties for
sale come to have "standing" - a quality which British English associates
with people or institutions, but certainly not with houses or buildings? .
Inconsistencies abound. Perfectly good English gerunds like boxing and
surfing get ignored in favor of European forms like "boxe" and "surf."
Equally strange, the term "sparring" has come to refer not to the activity
of sparring but to the sparring partner.
No native English speaker ever went "footing," but this word has been
around in Europe since the end of the 19th century when it entered
Spanish, for example, in the sense of hiking. . Nowadays it substitutes
for "jogging," a word which is often harder for non-native speakers to
pronounce. . It must be said that native speakers of English are as guilty
as the rest when it comes to gerunding. Grammatically the gerund is a
verbal noun; therefore its root should be a verb, as in walking, eating,
running and so on. . But in modern (and especially American) English we
find an increasing use of gerund-type words generated from nouns, a wrong
usage severely frowned upon by purists.
Going beyond Europe, a recent editorial in our own IHT brought
to our attention the word "bunkering," a "quaint term Nigerians use to
describe outright stealing of crude oil by members of the armed forces or
the government" ("Nigeria's dashed hopes," March 8). . Bunkering can
hardly be called an English cultural export. But I wonder how long it will
be before "beasting" and "monstering" find their way around the world.
These unsavory words are slang terms for interrogation methods employed by
the U.S. military, made public by court proceedings related to abuses at
Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. . What other pleasant cultural exports can we
find? I was interested to see the word "bullying" in the Spanish newspaper
El Mundo, over an article about youngsters being harassed by other
children at school. While glossed in the text as "el acoso," a general
term for being aggressive, the word "bullying" referred to the emotional
and physical variant found widely in the British school environment.
"Why is that in English?" I asked a Spanish friend. The answer came,
"We've never needed a word for that before in Spain." Here, as ever,
language is our clearest living indicator of social change.
(C.J. Moore is the author of In Other Words: A Language Lovers Guide to
Intriguing Words Around the World.)
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