Working Words Well: How To Work A Foreign Word Or Phrase
I first encountered Wiley Miller’s comic strip Non Sequitur before I learned French. The title intrigued me–and tied up my un-tutored tongue–enough to force me to find out what it meant. And thus, a scrawny 11-year-old could now wrinkle her nose and reply to any argument, “Well, that was a non sequitur” with the certainty that all in ear-shot had been mystified into silence. Even though I couldn’t pronounce it yet.
If you’ve ever been frustrated by an author’s inept use of a non-English phrase, you know the entire piece tends to lack a certain je ne sais quoi. But because they’re often irreplaceable, fun, and provide an interesting new layer to your communication, they shouldn’t be left by the wayside. Here’s when and how to use foreign words in English understandably and enjoyably.
Italicize, por favor. Don’t sneak a phrase from another language unannounced. It’s awkward, because readers are never expecting to run into it untl they do, and if they don’t know what it means, it can be annoying.
Know your audience. Editing a paper for a doctoral candidate in economics, I came upon the word zaibatsu, sans italics. I assumed my author didn’t know any better and globally italicized every occurrence before I looked up the term. It turns out the word (which refers to pre-WWII Japanese business cliques) is so commonly used in economy and finance circles it’s never italicized in their publications. I quietly removed the italics and tiptoed away. Don’t tell anyone.
Location, location, localidad. Context is especially important when using a phrase from another language. If you don’t want the awkwardness of having to stop and directly define it, make sure it’s clear what it means by describing it or elaborating on it in some way.
Make sure it means what you think it means. We constantly confuse the meanings of English words and end up looking dumb, so there’s no reason to feel confident when deciding to use a foreign word or phrase. I like Google translate, but don’t trust it because it’s a machine. Try finding a dictionary of the language you’re using, a list of words if there’s no dictionary available, or reaching out to speakers of the language on social media.
Don’t italicize everything. There are some words and phrases we use without translating on paper or even in our heads because they’re so common. How do you know which they are? Look them up in the dictionary. If they’re there, you probably don’t need to italicize.
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I may have caught a glimpse in my Twitter stream of laid and lain; how about lie and lay? I mentioned today in a direct tweet to you that I'd dearly love for you to write grammar stories -- kind of like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (with which I know you are familiar; how's that for proper grammar?). Pull a book together; you're already writing the sections now! And, I dearly love how you present the differences so simply.
What do you think, Adam? This woman rocks; hands down!
@Soulati | PR Thanks for the kind words; I swear I'm just having fun, but I'll think about it. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is famous in this house! I guess it could be geared toward kids and adults, really... Hmm...
Good post Shakirah! It's not a topic you see discussed much but it's something I do notice when reading.
Knowing the audience is key. Using foreign phrases can come across as showy in the wrong context. (Been there, done that.)
I use the dictionary rule too for italicizing (when I actually take time to check that is). I will admit, I'm probably not that careful in blog posts, but I certainly try to make sure when doing more formal writing.
adamtoporek I think we automatically tend to avoid language we don't think our audience will understand in the blogosphere unless we're being snobs. But "a place for everything" and all that.