Words at Play

“. . . From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.”

“It,” as you have surely guessed, is English.  The above quote is from a Guardian article that details the huge influence that English has around the world.

I found the article interesting for three reasons.  First, WordPress, which hosts my blog, provides me with information on the homelands of the people who visit Book Notes Plus.  Many come from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but I also have visitors from many countries where English is not the primary language.

Second, I have had many friends from non-English speaking countries.  Many of them decry our reluctance to learn their languages even when we live in their countries for many years.  They are insulted, and see us as haughty people who think it’s demeaning to speak anything but English.  The message they get is that, “if you want to speak to me, you’ll have to learn English – even when I’m in your country.”

An Italian friend of mine once told me a joke that speaks to this issue:

Question:  What do you call someone who speaks many languages?

Answer:  A polyglot.

Q:  What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A:  Bilingual.

Q:  What do you call someone who speaks only one language?

A:  An American.

Third, I was astounded to read that authors who write in languages other than English are so interested in having their books translated into English that they are dumbing down and simplifying their writing so that their works can more easily be translated into English.

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Harry Potter French Edition

One of the things that fascinates me about the Harry Potter novels is JK Rowling’s inventive use of words.  I have no idea how she came up with the diverse and clever words that help to make the story of Harry Potter and his world so interesting, but that very uniqueness of language has made the Harry Potter series a nightmare for translators.

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“I got on  my soapbox about how important it is for my son to take life seriously.  Then things went haywire when I noticed that he was texting his girlfriend while I was talking to him.  I went bananas!  I called him on the carpet and read him the riot act.  ‘I won’t put up with such tomfoolery,’ I shouted. It was then that I noticed the trace of a smile on his face.  He was really pushing the envelope and he knew it! And I knew that I had my work cut out for me.”

The above paragraph contains almost half of the 16 common phrases whose origins are discussed in an article from Mental Floss.

In case you’re wondering, I never had the above encounter with my son.  I made it up.  In fact, he is, hands down, an exceptional son, husband and father.

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There is “narcissism” and then there is “malignant narcissism.”  The term “malignant narcissism” was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm in his 1964 book The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil.  According to Wikipedia, Fromm defined it as a “severe mental sickness representing ‘the quintessence of evil,’ and ‘the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity.’  Again quoting Wikipedia, [psychoanalyst Otto] “Kernberg described malignant narcissism as a syndrome characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial features, paranoid traits, and egosyntonic aggression. Other symptoms may include an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance (grandiosity). [Psychoanalyst Griselda] Pollock wrote: ‘The malignant narcissist is presented as pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.’”

A 2017 Psychology Today article by Rhonda Freeman, Ph.D., entitled “How to Tell You’re Dealing with a Malignant Narcissist” explores the disorder in depth.

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The English language has borrowed numerous Latin words and phrases which we use every day without ever realizing it.  Mental Floss offers us 20 Latin phrases that we should be using, but probably aren’t.

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At the Oxford Dictionaries website you’ll find lots of interesting articles about words.  One that caught my eye was entitled, “Something’s Afoot.”  It’s about the origins of the names for five different types of shoes.

Another interesting article is about words and phrases that Guardian columnist Gary Nunn predicts will become extinct within our lifetimes.

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Where do words come from?  The answer is that they come from everywhere – from other languages, from combining two words into one, and even from assigning new definitions to existing words.  All of this, and more, is explored in a TED-Ed talk.

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