These words – brushing, feyskontrol, Afterhour – seem odd to English ears. We recognise them, sort of, but we’d never use them ourselves – not in those ways, at least. They are borrowed from English but their meanings are new and different; linguists call them pseudo-anglicisms. Sometimes they are English words used to mean something else, other times they are combinations that native speakers find plain weird. Occasionally they’ve been made up to sound like English, but have nothing to do with the language of Shakespeare at all.
Foreign languages are full of pseudo-anglicisms. The Danish for a carrycot is babylift, Hungarians call jeans farmer pants and the Japanese ofisuredii (‘office lady’) describes a female desk worker. A comment on a blog or a website is called a tokbek (‘talk back’) in Hebrew. Skateboarding and frisbee are Funsports in German.
Howard Moss, who teaches Italian at the University of Swansea and has studied pseudo-anglicisms, says that “often the term starts in the foreign language in the same way as English, and then it sort of shifts.” A good example of this, he says, is the Italian word for the joker in a pack of cards, il jolly. “In the 19th Century, the English word for this was ‘the jolly joker’,” he explains. Somewhere along the way the Italians dropped the second part and English speakers dropped the first.
Or take the example of an express train, which can be described as running no-stop, from the English ‘non-stop’. “You know what it means, clearly, but it’s being used slightly differently,” says Moss. There are plenty more colourful ones in Italian. A speed camera is known colloquially as a tutor. (Put your foot down too much on the Autostrada, and you’ll certainly learn a lesson.) Hiring temporary staff in the IT sector is called body rental. A purveyor of adult entertainments is a sexy shop.
These are all good fun – but for some people, the creep of English words into foreign languages is a serious business and cause for concern, whether those words mean the same thing in English or not. In France the Académie Française is an important body in public life. It is the final arbiter of the language and a watchdog against its abuse. It issues warnings and edicts against anglicisms for which perfectly good French words exist, and lately its website has cautioned against fan zone and listing – though it accepts building for skyscraper and Browning for handgun as legitimate French words of English origin.
The Association for the German Language campaigns against the use of English words in German, which Oliver Baer from the organisation says are “needlessly flooding the language”. Although he concedes that the total number of loanwords in German is actually relatively small, he remains perturbed. “One could say all right, they’re negligible. But on the other hand you find people who use anglicisms to the degree of 30 or 40 per cent of their spoken words. Then it doesn’t only sound silly, it’s embarrassing and it’s actually damaging.” To stop their spread, the Association provides an online tool which provides more Germanic alternatives. It suggests you give Funsports a miss and use Erlebnissports instead.
But does it matter if these so-called English words don’t exist in English at all? Baer doesn’t believe so. “I don’t think most people actually realise which are pseudo-anglicisms and which are real anglicisms,” he says. “But anybody who does know is particularly embarrassed.” He gives the example of a vintage car, which most Germans call an Oldtimer. “It’s awful!” he says. “People don’t distinguish. They’re not aware that ‘old timer’ is a word you don’t use in English in that context at all.”
It’s easy to snigger at foreigners and their funny, not-quite-English words – but how many of us realise that our own language contains plenty of the same thing the other way around? Howard Moss points out that “if you ask for a latte in Italy, you’ll get a glass of milk.” Likewise, “panini means bread rolls in Italian and in its singular form is panino.” So when we ask for ‘two paninis please’, it’s like an Italian requesting ‘dui rollsi’.
Americans call the main course of their meal the entrée, but in French l’entrée means ‘the entrance’, so it should probably describe the first. And when the British respond to a risqué joke with ‘ooh la la’ there’s a sauciness implied that just isn’t there in the original French words, risqué meaning ‘risked’ (a verb, not an adjective) and oh là là a great many things from ‘wow’ to ‘oh dear’, none of them very sexy. (There are no double entendres in France, where the phrase does not exist or make sense.)
As English speakers we don’t generally know where our words come from, and probably care even less. It’s easy to be relaxed when yours is the language the rest of the world learns to get ahead. But the fact is that all of us are borrowing from each other, mixing and matching, repurposing for our needs and sometimes getting it a bit wrong. That’s just how language works.