So what word, or words, has your language or nation loaned to English? What single word would English be a poorer language without?
The English language can most likely be seen as the world language. Native-speakers are numbered around 430 million people, and the number of people who use English as a second language ranges from between 470 million to 1 billion; depending on how mastery of the language is measured.
Admittedly, Chinese Mandarin and Spanish have a greater number of native speakers, but your chances of finding a Chinese-speaking street stall owner in Italy or Spanish-speaking bar worker in India are somewhat less than finding one who can communicate to some degree in English.
But English is essentially a ‘foreign tongue’. Its roots are to be found in north-western Germany (the word English itself comes from the Angles tribe from is modern-day Schleswig-Holstein). After the gradual Anglo-Saxon invasion of England came the Normans, from northern France, and their influence is still found in today’s English; often in terms related to governance (French was for hundreds of years the language of the English parliament – itself a French word).
As Latin was for so long the language of religion and learning across Europe it too has a huge influence on English; though mostly in terms of medical and scientific words. Sadly very little of the original Celtic languages spoken in the British Isles can be found today in Modern English; and these mostly in place-names (i.e. Stratford-upon-Avon, avon derives from the from Celtic Common Brittonic abona meaning river. See Irish Gaelic abhainn, river).
One of the reasons for the great success of the English language – beyond obviously England’s colonial past – is the willingness of English to borrow from other languages. Modern English is comprised of words from Latin (29%), French (29%), Germanic (26%) and others (16%). Others include everything from Greek to Spanish, and Indian to Arabic.
So what word, or words, has your language or nation loaned to English? What word would English be a poorer language without? As an Irishman I know that Ireland and England’s much-entwined history has left its mark on both countries and languages. But what word of Irish origin really stands out?
Whiskey is a little obvious (an Anglicisation of the Irish uisce beatha or uisge beatha; or water of life). Slogan too is Irish/Scottish Gaelic in origin (sluagh-ghairm roughly translated as battle cry). Oddly enough hooligan has Irish roots; the name of a supposedly ruffian family of Irish immigrants in London during the 1890s, whose surname was Houlihan. Tory, the sobriquet of the British Conservative Party, is also Irish; from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; modern Irish tóraí: outlaw, robber or brigand.
But the English-speaking world would hardly be at major loss for these words – however we hope whiskey would exist by another name at least. But what about boycott as a word, idea and concept? From apartheid-era South Africa to the modern Israel-Palestine conflict, the boycott of people or goods is an important weapon or bargaining tool.
Boycott has its origins in the Irish Land War of the 1870s-90s, a period of agrarian agitation in rural Ireland aimed at bettering the position of tenant farmers in their dealings with the mostly English landowners. In the decades after the Great Famine – which cost the lives of some 1 million Irish people – poor farmers still struggled to attain basic rights of tenancy.
Many of the landlords lived in England and used land agents to enforce rents, and evictions from the land. One such agent was a Captain Charles Boycott, employee of Lord Erne – an absentee landlord and member of the British House of Lords. By the summer of 1880 Boycott’s relations with Erne’s tenants on his estate in the West of Ireland deteriorated to such a level that locals simply refused to speak with him, do business with him, work his fields or even deliver his post.
By November 1880 The Times newspaper was using boycott as a term for organised isolation. The system was the most potent weapon the Irish possessed during the Land War, and a similar tactic was used by Mahatma Gandhi’s followers; eventually leading to Indian independence from Great Britain in 1947.
Though not an Irish word per se – in that it comes from a person’s surname – boycott has left an indelible mark on history and is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago as means of nonviolent, civil resistance. Over the centuries many other nations have added to the English language’s wordstock. If you had to choose one word, what would yours be?