Foreign Phrases

One of the blessings of English (for me, anyway) is its profusion of words and phrases borrowed from other languages. Many of them come from French, somewhat fewer from Italian, Latin, Greek, and German. So I decided to list some of them here, explain their meaning, and give some background.

I start with noblesse oblige. The phrase is from French and means literally “nobility obligates.” Its meaning as used by Americans is the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged. The term comes from a time when French (more specifically, Anglo-Norman) was the language of the English nobility.

Doppelganger: The term doppelgänger comes from German and means, literally, “double goer.” In English, it means an apparition of a living person, a mysterious, exact double. According to Wikipedia, “In fiction and mythology, a doppelgänger is often portrayed as a ghostly or paranormal phenomenon and usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck. Other traditions and stories equate a doppelgänger with an evil twin.”

Tabula rasa:  a Latin phrase often translated as “clean slate” in English. It originates from the Roman tabula, a wax-covered tablet used for notes, which was blanked (rasa) by heating the wax and then smoothing it. Tabula rasa proponents maintain that individuals are born without built-in mental content, and therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception.

Double entendre: The phrase is actually a mix of English and French. Entendre by itself means “to hear.” According to Wikipedia, “A double entendre is a figure of speech or a particular way of wording that is devised to have a double meaning, of which one is typically obvious, whereas the other often conveys a message that would be too socially awkward, sexually suggestive, or offensive to state directly.” Examples (from Your Dictionary online): You look really hot! (said to someone who is sweating, other meaning is being really sexually attractive). I’d love to see your melons! (said to a produce grocer, other meaning references a woman’s breasts). Mr. Halloway keeps touching his organ (said about a person who plays the organ in church, other meaning refers to male genitalia).

Al dente: cooked just enough to retain a somewhat firm texture. The term is Italian and means “to the tooth.” In the opinion of many, “al dente” is the only proper way to cook pasta.

Zeitgeist: the spirit of the time, the defining mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time. The literal meaning of the German term come from Zeit, meaning “time,” and Geist, meaning “spirit” or “ghost.”

More next time.

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