October 3, 1999 - 'The World in So Many Words'

INTRO: VOA's Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti talk to the author of a new book that gives a country-by-country tour of words that have shaped the English language.

RS: If you speak English, then you know at least a little bit from more than one-hundred languages around the world.

AA: That's what got Allan Metcalf interested in writing "The World in So Many Words." Allan Metcalf is a professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois. He is also executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, a scholarly group that studies American English.

RS: Each of the two-hundred essays in his book is based on a word imported into English from a different language. For instance, touring the globe, we get "pampered" by the Dutch, attend "kindergarten" in Germany, take a "siesta" in Spain, learn to "tango" from the Ibibio of Nigeria. And, we end up in "paradise" courtesy of the Persian language.

AA: Allan Metcalf says deciding which word to choose for each language wasn't always easy.


METCALF: "The real challenge came from languages like French and Latin which have provided about one quarter each of the entire vocabulary of English. So, even just to list all the words from French and Latin would take a book thicker than this one."

RS: "Give us an example, would you?"

METCALF: "For French, I had `reason' and `fashion' thinking that the French would appreciate their `superiority' in those areas.

And, I didn't spend a whole lot of time discussing `reason' and fashion because those words are so well known. I did give Descartes, as an example of the use of `reason,' the `Discourse of Reason.,' but (also) mentioning that we have had `reason' from French in English since 1225, and fashion we've had since the year 1300."

AA: Allan Metcalf says one of the most amazing stories in "The World in So Many Words" is how a bird in Antarctica got its name. According to his research, the naming process started on an island off Newfoundland visited by Welsh sailors.


METCALF: "'Pen' means `head' and `guin' means `white.' So `penguin' means white head. And, this is even more a mystery because a penguin is mostly black. What happened was there's an island off of Newfoundland and British sailors back in the 1500s called the island and the birds on it `penguin' or `white head.' Now that particular kind of bird, that kind of penguin, has become extinct. But, then when speakers of English got as far as the South Pole they had this name `penguin' and somebody must have thought that the bird they saw near the South Pole was the same kind of thing as the bird they had called a penguin."

RS: "It's fascinating that these words travel so much. I guess that as people travel, they take their words with them."

METCALF: "And then they adapt the words to different circumstances or perhaps what you can say is that (the word) gets misunderstood."

RS: Take the word "bizarre," B-I-Z-A-R-R-E, meaning "strange" in English.

AA: Allan Metcalf says what started as a Basque word for "beard" has sprouted into different meanings to different speakers. And it's not too bizarre to imagine these speakers all converging on a European street.


"So, somebody hears a person in Basque saying `bizarre.' Somebody speaking Spanish says that must mean somebody who is handsome. Then the French person hears it and says, it must mean somebody who is a warrior. Then the English speaker hears it, and says it must mean somebody who is weird looking. So they hear the word and mistranslate it, but then it becomes the meaning of the word in a new language."

AA: Allan Metcalf's new book is called "The World in So Many Words." It is published by Houghton Mifflin.

RS: If you have a "yen" --

AA: In other words, a craving, to use the meaning of yen that comes to English from Cantonese.

RS: -- if you have a yen to know more about American English, address your questions via e-mail to word@voa.gov or write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.