Pardon My French

A conversation about words



In my most recent column, I asked for English words to replace ones on loan from other languages. Schadenfreude, German for guilty pleasure at someone else’s misfortune, elicited sadenjoy. This winning entry doesn’t just note the mixed feelings of enjoying another person’s travail, it also nicely echoes its German counterpart. Frisson, French for a shiver of pleasurable anticipation, became zing. (“A zing went down her spine when she saw him.”) I like zing’s terseness and clarity, and that it has a flavor similar to its Gallic counterpart. Mensch, Yiddish for an amiably admirable person, remains basically untranslatable but did call forth two intriguing suggestions: Mandela and truman. The former alludes to the late South African president, who personified menschness; the latter is a portmanteau of “true” and “man.” It also is the surname of our menschy 33rd president. Thus: “He’s a real Mandela” or “a veritable truman.” (One wishes both words were more gender neutral, but we can’t have it all.) Finally, there’s simpatico. I wouldn’t have thought this Spanish word for a warmly empathetic quality would be so hard to convert into English, but that seems to be the case. Therefore let’s step out of the linguistic box and give a nod to donuts, a whimsical reference to warm sweetness, if not empathy. (“Pope Francis is really donuts.”) I realize that this term rows against today’s nutritional tide, but in our language at least, can we indulge ourselves just this once?

Winners: Stephen Gottesman (sadenjoy), Dave Fettig (a triple-winner for mandela, zing, and donuts), and Paul Goehrke (truman).

A Note

Regarding my previous column, not all respondents were happy about the idea of replacing serviceable foreignisms with English synonyms.  “Schadenfreude,” wrote one reader, “is at once concise and oxymoronic. English can’t do that… I will give up Schadenfreude when you pry it from my cold, dead, callused, arthritic hands!”  (Oxymoronic, perhaps, but concise?)

A respondent who apparently heard me discuss foreignisms on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” challenged my choice of zing as a synonym for frisson.  “Please,” this respondent wrote. “You get a zing from a shot of tequila or plugging yourself into the Christmas tree. Nothing in English can suggest that tailbone to brain experience.” Chrilling was an interesting suggestion (combining thrilling and chilling), as was swan bumps (referencing “goose bumps,”) and squivver, though that conveys a sense of anxiety better than one of pleasure.  (“As she passed by the window, a squivver of fear shot through his spine.”)

Another reader pointed out that brick is an English counterpart to mensch, albeit one that’s a bit dated, and on the WASPy side, I’d say, connoting stalwartness better than amiability. Sound has a similar quality, as does stand-up guy/gal. Mensch awaits direct translation.

Simpatico was the hardest foreignism of all to translate directly into English.  Since disempathy was one suggestion for a schadenfreude substitute, I wondered: Could sempathybe an English counterpart to simpatico, combining the qualities of sympathy and empathy?  (Though technically it would have to be sempathetic which too easily brings “pathetic” to mind and tongue.)  In any event, a reader pointed out that with the rise of Hispanic culture, simpatico itself is probably the right word for our times.  As for its French counterpart, sympathique, another reader reported that in Quebec the contraction “sympa” is in common use.  “Better borrow it like so many other words,” this reader advised.


For the next contest, let’s turn to euphemisms. Ever since our ancestors in northern Europe thought that calling bears “brown ones” might mollify them, we’ve soothed our anxieties by replacing ominous words with bland ones. Which subjects make us anxious changes with time. Prudish Victorians were so concerned about wanton talk of body parts that they resorted to an extensive glossary of euphemistic substitutes: bosoms for breasts, stomach for belly, and private parts or privities for organs beneath the belly. Our forebears used euphemisms such as flourish, occupy, and conversation for the activity we call intercourse (itself a euphemism that originally referred to little more than interaction between two people). Dishonesty is another topic we’re reluctant to confront head-on. Liars are truth challenged. They misspeak. Their statements display a shortfall of accurate information. Not all euphemisms are this mealy-mouthed, however. Some are downright creative, as when—in Othello—Shakespeare called sexual activity “making the beast with two backs.” (Can’t see the window below? Click here to enter the contest.)

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Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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