Language experts are in broad agreement that English has one of the richest vocabularies of any language. Speakers of English have about twice as many words at their disposal than speakers of Spanish or Chinese have. This abundance is due to the way English was born out of a collision between the Romance language tradition of Southern Europe and the Germanic tradition of Northern Europe. English plundered words from both traditions and made them work together. As the centuries have rolled on English has not been shy about taking words from other world languages too.
Yet, despite this enormous hoard of words, there are still occasions when the lexicon is unable to name a concept that is recognized by another language. If English speakers find it useful to talk about the happiness you get at someone else’s misfortune, they have to resort to the German word ‘Schadenfreude’; if they want to talk about a sudden thrill of pleasure, they use the French word ‘frisson’.
We call these borrowings from other languages ‘loan words’ – although there is no suggestion that the words are ever to be given back to their original owners. Instead, English often likes to hold onto them and quietly forgets that they originally came from elsewhere.
This process of borrowing from other languages is still ongoing, and can be seen in some of the words that have been added to the Collins Dictionary recently. One example is the Welsh word hiraeth, which describes a nostalgic longing for a place that can never be revisited. This is often said to be an emotion that is characteristically Welsh, but English speakers have found the word fills a useful gap in their own language and started to use it themselves.
A borrowing from somewhat further afield is washi, which is the name given to a type of decorative paper originating from Japan. This high-quality product has now caught the eye of the wider world as a resource for crafting, especially in the adhesive form known as washi tape. And so ‘washi’ is following the path of other Japanese words such as ‘origami’, ‘karaoke’, and ‘sudoku’ and being welcomed into the English dictionary.
Written by Ian Brookes, writer and editor.
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