(to return to Words page, click here)
Essay Twelve, More Foreign-Derived Nouns
The English language is a shameless borrower. Or, alternatively said, it is a language of great skill in making use of previously-existing words. We not only have the “serious” new words, derived from our technological world, such as “email” or “Iphone,” but we playfully invent words or phrases to capture the humor or irony of our lives. The “bozone,” for example, is the “persistent atmosphere around an intellectually challenged person, which prevents any technological information from penetrating and educating them.” (1) Or, a “seagull manager” is one who makes “quick visits around the office, flusters everyone, makes a lot of noise, and then leaves as quickly.” One might have also observed that such a manager usually craps on employee work product or leaves it in complete disarray.
But English has also liberally borrowed from other languages for all of its 1000-year history. It isn’t clear at any time, for example, which words we are currently borrowing are actually recognized as English words or ought to be placed in quotation marks—as still “foreign” words. A Japanese word in this category is hikikomori. No dictionary has it, but there are now dozens of articles in English, beginning around 2000, describing this troubling phenomenon in Japan and East Asia of young men withdrawing from society for extended periods of time by living reclusive lives—often not leaving their rooms for years at a time. Is hikikomori an English word now? Sure it is; the dictionaries will catch up sooner or later.
But what about the Japanese phenomenon of keitai shosetsu? A keitai is a mobile phone and keitai shosetsu is “mobile phone fiction,” a new genre of literature (?), roughly translated as “thumb novels,” which is becoming prevalent in that land. (2) Keital shosetsu authors come from the vast Japanese demographic of teenage girls and twenty-something young women, who “thumb out lurid, mawkish romances on their keypads in scraps of manga-like (3) dialogue, skimpy action, texting slang and emoji (emotions).” Then they post these skeletal narratives in installments or put them into “thumb novels” which are picked up with avidity in that land. So, will this genre catch on in America? And, if it does, will we talk of these productions as keitai shosetsu or something else? Well, maybe while the boys are withdrawing into hikikomori, the girls are texting their way to keitai shosetsu.
(2) Barry Yourgrau, “The Next Big Thing,” Independent (UK), July 29, 2009; Indepdendent Life Section.
(3) Manga, according to the OED, is a “Japanese genre of cartoons and comic books, drawn in a meticulously detailed style, featuring characters with distinctive large, staring eyes, and typically having a science-fiction or fantasy theme, sometimes including violent or sexually explicit material.”
This chapter will focus on about a dozen words which have, more or less, come into English as useful words, even if they give off obvious signs of their “foreign” origin. They are: repechage, auteur, tour de force, blitzkrieg, chimera, satyagraha, ayurveda, karuna, svengali, ayatollah and imam.
A few French-derived words, well-placed and understood, will be an immediate fillip for impressive conversation and writing. Let’s begin with tour de force. It is a feat of strength, power or skill. Or, more modernly, it is a feat often deliberately undertaken for its difficulty. Or, even more precisely, a tour de force is an unusual or signature creation, production or performance. A warning: this is a word that is easily overused. For example, the forward to a 2007 book, Emotional Plague, begins with this language:
“In this epic tour de force psychiatrist Charles Konia tackles issues that have afflicted humanity throughout recorded history, offering brilliant new insights…”
In this book Konia tries to resurrect the “orgone” theory of energy first proposed by German psychologist Wilhelm Reich in his 1933 book The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Maybe someday Konia’s work will be widely embraced; chances are that it will not. So much for epic tours de force.
The phrase most frequently appears these days in such phrases as “literary tour de force” or “intellectual tour de force.” More likely to be an actual tour de force is the recently released Race: A Theological Account by Duke Divinity School professor J. Kameron Carter. In reviewing the book, James Cone, who launched the “Black theology” movement over forty years ago, says this:
“An intellectual tour de force! This book demonstrates great intellectual range and theological imagination.” (4)
Other mainstream reviewers likewise fall out of their chairs in praising this 2008 work; thus, the term tour de force may be more appropriate. Recent usages of the term are in these contexts: a chief might prepare a tour de force meal; some of Roosevelt’s WWII speeches have been called absolute tours de force; a movie might be a cinematic tour de force; Friedrich Engles’ 1845 expose of the desperate lives of the Manchester, English working class in his The Condition of the Working Class in England has been called a “tour de force of urban industrial horror.” (5) So, be careful not to over-inflate people’s performances by calling everything a tour de force. Michael Phelps’ winning of eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Olympics was a tour de force. Barack Obama’s stunning Presidential victory was a tour de force. A Yankee World Series win, however, isn’t. . .
(5) Tristram Hunt, Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, quoted in Dwight Garner's review, New York Times, August 19, 2009, C1.
At first glance you might think that auteur (pronounced “oh TURE”) is just the French word for “author." Yes, but mostly no. The word only goes back to the late 1950s in English and has its home in the film world. An auteur is a film director whose “artistic control over his or her films [is] so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.” (6) This word, which literally means ‘author,’ found its way into the film world by virtue of a famous 1954 essay by film director Francois Truffaut, in which he coined the phrase la politique des auteurs [rendered in English as auteur theory]. As one article argues, Truffaut used the phrase to lambaste the anemic and sterile state of post-WWII French cinema. (7) But its positive point was to emphasize that a film director, good or bad, has such a style and personality that it must be reflected in that director’s work over the course of his/her life. S/he is an auteur.
(6) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
A heated debate followed in the 1960s and 1970s regarding whose vision a film actually incorporates. Some contended that the number of creative persons collaboratively working on a film means that to look for it as the result of the creative effort of one person is mistaken. If you do this, you tend to see the movie as a potentially deep symbolic field where everything might have “meaning.” Rather, the critics contended, one shouldn’t so much speculate on the meaning or potential meaning of details or potential “signature” gestures; one should just focus on the “text itself” or the visual impact of the whole in determining meaning.
Well, this can get pretty arcane pretty quickly, but now you know the origin of the term. It has taken on a strong life of its own in our day, with about 100 appearances a year in the New York Times alone. But the term remains anchored in the cinematic world. Recent articles, for example, talk about the auteurs Judd Apatow (The Forty-Year-Old Virgin; Knocked Up; Funny People) and Stephen Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; The Informant!), but it also can be used as an adjective to refer to an auteur film (i.e., one in which the director’s style shines through clearly). But let’s let some air in on this one and extend it to any artistic work, in film, music, writing, etc. where the vision of a single individual shines forth. Save it for special occasions, however, like tour de force. But think Coen brothers; think Gus Van Sant—and you have two modern examples of auteurs.
More Quickly Now—Blitzkrieg, Repechage, Chimera
I love the sound of repechage (ray pay SHAGH), even though it isn’t a frequently-appearing word. It comes from a French word meaning “to fish out” (see the “pech” there?) but it came to mean “to give an examination with a second chance to pass.” It is, in short, a “retake.” In English it has the meaning of “to rescue” or “save,” and it has become associated with sports competition in two ways. On the one (more frequent) hand, a repechage is a “second-chance” race, primarily in rowing or yachting, for a defeated team to still make it in a later round. A typical usage is:
“Wisconsin and Washington won their heats.Twenty other varsity entries will compete in repechage, or second-chance heats, to qualify for the remaining eight places in today’s semifinals.” (8)
(8) New York Times, May 3, 2003, D7.
The word also can refer to the kind of competition where people or teams from an original round qualify for the finals not on the basis of meeting qualifying standards but because they are the “next fastest” of the losers. As a result of the repechage, they qualify for the finals. It can also refer to the elimination or consolation or losers (not used often) bracket of a double elimination competition. I also found references to a repechage contest at the US Bridge Championships (2001) or in bike racing (2000). When you receive a poor grade for a paper or assignment, ask the professor/teacher with a straight face, “Will there be no repechage?” See them squirm.
A blitzkrieg owes its origin to the movement of German troops in a “lightning (quick) attack” at the beginning of WWII, first against Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 and continuing on to France in May 1940. Hitler was said to have developed this quick method of attack in order to fight a two-front war in quick succession. The word has taken on a figurative meaning—to describe a torrent or flurry of activities. One might have a blitzkrieg of puns, of texts, of emails. There are references on the Net to a blitzkrieg of piano recitals, of new regulations imposed by the federal government, of misinformation about President Obama, of articles. The one I liked the most talks about the way that constant wars in the Levant (Mediterranean Middle East) have created a “blitzkrieg of Ungulates”—have led to “lightning attacks” against these mammalian creatures and decimated their population. I wouldn’t go this far in using this type of language, but a blitzkrieg in the various other senses is very useful.
The chimera (ki MEER a) was a fire-breathing mythological beast from Greek mythology variously described as either being tripartite (head of lion, body of goat, tail of serpent) or as having three heads. John Wyclif first referred to these in the preface to his translation of the first Bible in English in 1382. John Milton used the word, predictably, in Paradise Lost:
“All monstrous, all prodigious things…worse/ Then fables yet
have feign’d, or fear conceiv’d,/ Gorgons and Hydra’s, and
Chimera’s dire,” II.628.
Artistic representations abound online. The chimera has been variously interpreted, as a symbol of a tripartite nature of the year (but I thought there were four seasons) or, in connection with its loss in battle with Bellerophon, the battle of good against evil. But the word has been stripped from its mythological context in English today to mean a fantastical notion, a fancy that had no relation to reality, or an unfounded conception. It can also mean, taking the tripartite nature of the beast seriously, a disorganized medley. A nineteenth century author could talk about the chimera of a northwest passage, which bedeviled explorers of the North American continent. More recent authors characterize the fighting and winning of a limited nuclear war as a chimera. One can argue that human progress and development in our day is “neither a euphemism nor a chimera.” One might call a unique piece of art, “a chimera that incorporates pieces from 11” different styles. While the occasions for you to use repechage will be few, and those using blitzkrieg will be some, chances to employ chimera are plentiful. Whenever anyone is losing grip on reality, the word chimera is not far away. It also has an attractive adjectival form, chimerical, which means “filled with idle fancies and wild dreams; whimsical; fanciful.” “It may seem chimerical to speak of this subject, but. . .” David Brooks, when writing on President Obama’s health care reform effort, says:
“Obama’s plan has many virtues, but the cost-saving measures are chimerical.” (9)
(9) "Big Government Ahead," New York Times, October 14, 2008, A29.
Chimera and chimerical are great words to use if you are trying to criticize someone’s ideas. These words will enliven and vivify your speech and writing. Use ‘em.
Svengali, Karuna, Imam, Ayatollah
Though the word Svengali (always capitalized) appears to be a word derived from the Eastern world, it isn’t. It is the name of an unscrupulous and manipulative hypnotist in George Du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby. As one web page says, Du Maurier’s (10) novel became an instant success because it introduced the relatively new psychological treatment strategy of hypnotism. (11)
“Du Maurier got the idea for his tale of Svengali’s cruel domination of his hapless hypnotic subject from viewing a demonstration of a subject’s complete, amnesic dissociation in a hypnotist’s office.”
(10) Despite what you might first think, Du Maurier (1834-1896) was English.
After the hypnosis session, the subject would lapse into obedience but feel that her choices were freely willed. This, then, was the issue Du Maurier wanted to explore—the tragic potential for abuse of a hypnotic subject by a merciless therapist. The word caught on and by 1914 was used by Rudyard Kipling as the name of a dog: “I’m glad Zvengali’s back where he belongs [referring to a dog with a mesmeric stare].”
By 1942 an official organ of American English, the journal American Speech, put it this way: “The word ‘Svengali’ shows the player’s ability to keep his opponent so ‘hypnotized’ that he will not be aware of his trickery.” (12) Thus, it grew to designate a person exercising a controlling or mesmeric influence on another, frequently for sinister purposes. (13)
(12) Quoted in OED, s.v.
(13) The word mesmeric also has an interesting history. It is derived from the name of Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), an Austrian physician who first popularized the doctrine according to which a trained practitioner can induce a hypnotic state in a patient by the exercise of what he called “animal magnetism.” His approach ultimately formed the basis of the modern practice of hypnosis. He was, however, not well accepted in his lifetime, having to flee Austria in 1778 for Paris after allegations of fraud by fellow Austrian physicians.
The word has lots of resonance today and can effectively be used when you describe the influence or mental control someone has over another or others. It appears in such phrases as “Svengali-like charm” or “influence” or “control” or “domination” or “manipulative ability.” Charles Manson, the leader of a personality cult in California in the 1960s, might be said to have exercised a “Svengali-type dominance” over his (mostly female) followers. A person can use “Svengali-like” magic or be a “Svengali-like” villain. We can also drop the “like” and just designate a person as a “Svengali.” For example, during the Bush Administration (2001-09), many liberals drove themselves almost to distraction thinking about Karl Rove, the Svengali of the West Wing. If the person called a “Svengali” is the subject of the sentence, he is usually said to “wield Svengali-type influence.” Victims “succumb” to the Svengali-like magic of another. Thus, the term suggests the cruel domination of a hapless subject or the hypnotic exploitation of someone. It is a great and useful word to describe malefic influences that people cast over another. The term is “resonant with sinister implications.” (14)
We go to the opposite end of the psychological or ethical spectrum with the word karuna. It is a Sanskrit term found in Buddhism and means “loving compassion, as that sought and attained by a Bodhisattva.” (15) One web site I studied has this to say about karuna:
“It is translated to mean any action that is taken to diminish the suffering of others and could also be translated as ’compassionate action.’ When individuals experience enlightenment, they report that that all beings are known as one. Therefore, it is natural to extend compassionate action or Karuna to everyone without distinction because we are all one. As we help others and aid them in their harmonizing process, all beings benefit.” (16)
(15) OED, s.v.
I didn’t know until writing this that the actress Uma Thurman’s middle name is Karuna. One article, which talks about her playing the role of Charlotte Stant in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, mentions the struggle she had growing up and accepting two names which were so unlike those of her peers. (17) Her parents are both Buddhists, and her father, Robert Thurman, is a well-known scholar of Buddhism. Thus, every time you think of compassion or mercy, think first of karuna and Uma Thurman. You might also think of the films Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction, but put those images aside, and let yourself be washed away with mercy.
(17) Jennet Conant, "A Goddess from Union Square," New York Times, April 22, 2001, Section 2.
One of the results of our world becoming a global village in the last generation is that we have been forced, usually unwillingly, to learn the vocabulary of another religion—Islam. I first taught Islam to undergraduates at a Christian college in the conservative Midwest even before the first Gulf War. (18) I believed in 1990, and subsequent events have confirmed it, that a knowledge of Islam can go a long way to understanding and, I hope, ameliorating international tension in the next generation.
(18) I was a hitory professor at the time. When I pursued my Ph. D. in the history of religions (received it in 1982) from Brown University, I was astonished that there were no courses, much less a full-time scholar, in Islam in our department. I mentioned it to several people but was politely ignored. That is not the case today (2020).
Well, terms from that religion and Muslim culture in general have flooded our lives: ayatollah, imam, fatwa, mufti, sheik, hajj, Ramadan, Shahadah and many others. I will close this section with a word about two: ayatollah and imam. Just as blitzkrieg entered our consciousness in the week following Hitler’s attack on Poland in September 1939, so ayatollah came to our minds during the Iranian revolution of 1979. We learned to intone “Ayatollah Khomeini” with the same ferocity as he was teaching his subjects to say “America—the Great Satan.” Actually, the word ayatollah, an honorific title for an Iranian Shiite religious leader (from the Farsi word for “gift” or “miraculous sign” of God) first appeared in English in 1950. It had a brief life in the 1980s and 1990s as a figurative term to describe a person who exercises absolute control, “An ayatollah among the nuclear warfare mullahs, he had written extensively about nuclear policy at a high level of abstraction.” (19) The word has lost some of its scorching quality today, but it remains as an important one to know.
(19) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
The word imam has had a less controversial life. It is a broad-ranging term, and can be used to describe anyone in Islam from the leader of mosque prayers on Friday to the twelve special imams in “Twelver” Islam, to the leaders of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. (20) Twelver Islam, more formally known as the Ithnashari Shiites, is found primarily in Iran and Iraq. In their tradition an imam is one of those chosen by God to be a perfect example to the faithful and to lead humanity in all aspects of life. Thus, Shia Islam will always have a difficulty with a central American precept: the separation of “church and state.” According to Shia doctrine, the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan, was spirited away in 872 and has been living in occultation (a state of hiddenness) since then. He will return, however, as a promised Mahdi or messiah and establish a reign of justice and righteousness in the future.
(20) A good basic article is here: My hope is that some day Western students will learn the history of Islam with as much care as they are supposed to devote to the history of the West.
I was going to introduce so many other word in this chapter, but space doesn’t permit. Let me close by mentioning, in a nutshell, two others: satyagraha and ayurveda. Each one of them can require a lifetime of work. The first is the term used by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his philosophy of nonviolence. The term has an incredible suppleness to it, suggesting a not simply the commitment not to retaliate but actually to win the enemy over to your side by your firmness (Agraha) in truth (Satya). (21) Finally, the word ayurveda has been in English since the eighteenth century but really has received a boost or fillip in the last generation. It is the ancient Hindu system of medicine, drawn from the Vedic literature, and is based on the premise of the balance of bodily humors (doshas) which uniquely are present in each individual. American medicine will change in the next decade by demonstrating greater acceptance of or, at least, cognizance not simply of alternative medical practice but of Chinese and Indian classical medicines. Learn the words, which then point you to the vocabulary and the reality of a new system, and you will be poised to understand the new world that is opening for you.
(21) The Wikipedia article gets you started: