My aunt recently wrote a charming post, “words strung together in new ways“, about the joys of hearing English phrases put together in fresh new ways by people for whom English is a second or third language. “When you put words together in new ways, you think new thoughts”, she notes, citing a friend’s use of “Christmas wrath” rather than “Christmas wreath”, and how that led my aunt to think about the many stresses that do often hit around Christmas-time.
I’ve been thinking about language cross-overs as well, but more so in terms of what the French call faux amis: words that exist in either the same or slightly modified form in two languages, but whose meanings don’t really match one another’s. They look like friends – like the words you already know – but their different meanings make them false.
There aren’t many faux amis causing trouble between English and Arabic, but there are a number of French/English faux amis running around in Lebanon, even when the speaker in question isn’t French educated, because the French definition has taken over the English word – as with ‘nervous’.
‘Nervous’ and ‘énervé’, its French counterpart, both have the same baseline: they refer to an agitation of the nerves. But in English, ‘nervous’ refers more to apprehension – an anxious or slightly frightened state brought about by sensitive or easily jangled nerves. In French, ‘énervé’ refers more to irritation – an agitation brought about by something, as we English say, ‘getting on’ one’s nerves.
So when I say “Person X makes me nervous”, or “flying makes me nervous”, I mean something subtly but substantively different than “Person X gets on my nerves” or “flying [through the oft-delayed O’Hare, for example] irritates me”.
But in Lebanon, the easy flow of speech between Arabic, English, and French has meant that these differences have been smoothed away: ‘nervous’ is used in English as if it were French. Which of course for me made for many awkward conversations in Beirut.
I feel really nervous today, G would say.
Ah, I would say, struggling for context. Do you mean that you are worried about something, or irritated about something?
DIAMOND, G would reply, I just said “I feel really nervous today”. What do you think that means?
And thanks to the all-caps use of my name, I would have my answer :).
There are also faux amis that exist within English: between British and American English, most notably. When I lived in Damascus, I would be equally thrown by my friend S’s use of ‘boring’.
The border crossing is so boring, S would say, referring to the crossing between Syria and Lebanon.
Being the people-watching nerd that I am, I found the border crossing fascinating, but I didn’t think that S really meant ‘tiresome’.
Do you mean that you find it tedious or that you find the process annoying? I would ask.
S would look at me. Both, Diamond. The border crossing is tedious and the process is annoying, as are the border guards, the customs inspectors, and everyone else.
(S grew up in Britain, and sometimes found the lack of orderliness in Syria a bit overwhelming.)
Having just spent an evening with two friends, one who has been laid off since September and one who says that he and the rest of his team have “three things to do, max” each day, I find myself with a growing sympathy for the dual meaning of both words. Being anxious, as so many of us are these days thanks to the plummeting economy, is both nerve-wracking and irritating. And being bored at a job that may soon be cut because there is no work to be done is also annoying – not to mention frightening.