book club

A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi"

Have you ever wondered where certain sayings or words come from? We often wonder about the origins of foreign words, and what they mean. Another fun thing that we often talk and speculate over is where certain phrases started. So of course when I was sent a review copy of the new book new book A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English, I was very excited.

In the book we get the answers to a lot of these questions! The book has tons of interesting words, and tells the story of where they come from and how we came to adopt them into the English language.

Having studied French for 4 years, I already knew most of the French words and meanings. However, there were so many words from other cultures that I had no idea of. For example:

  • Ketchup began life as a spicy pickled fish sauce called koechiap in seventeenth-century China.
  • Honcho came from the Japanese world hancho, which means squad chief. The word was brought to the United States sometime during the 1940s by soldiers who had served in Japan.
  • Dungarees comes from the Hindi word dungri, the thick cotton cloth used for sails and tents in India.

I love that the book is laid out like alphabetically, from A to Z you can easily find and look up what you have been curious about. It’s a really fun book to have around, we have been cracking it open off and on and learning new things each time. It’s a great book for people who love trivia or languages (or both)! And to whet your appetite for the book even more, here is an article from the author.

A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
By Chloe Rhodes,
Author of A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English

Picture this scenario: You’re having a tête-à-tête with an old friend from your alma mater, who is a wine aficionado. So you pick an al fresco table at a chic little café, and order from the a la carte menu. However, your companion won’t stop exchanging double entendres with the woman in the sarong at the next table. So you’re stuck listening to the klutz of a waiter droning on ad nauseam about the soup du jour. At that point, you’re ready to say hasta la vista — but you don’t want to seem like a diva.

Try to say all that in “English.” You probably wouldn’t change a single word. How else would you describe such a scene if it weren’t for the thousands of foreign words and phrases we’ve snuck into our conversations over the years? We all use them without a second thought. But how much do you really know about the origins of the borrowed words and phrases you use every day?

Did you know, for example, that when you place an order for apple pie a la mode, that you are using a phrase that dates back to the days of King Louis XIV? His court became such a standard of good taste that the British aristocracy wanted to do more than dress in French fashion; they wanted to use their phrase for it, too. In the seventeenth century the term was anglicized to become alamode — a light silk used to make scarves. And at some point in small-town America, the combined flavors of cooked apple, sweet pastry, and cool, creamy vanilla represented the very latest in fashionable, cutting-edge gastronomy, giving the term its modern meaning of “with ice cream.”

And there’s hundreds of other examples from France: laissez faire, joie de vivre, fait accompli, faux pas, I could go on but you’d only become blasé. And with good reason; English speakers have been word collectors since the fifth century, when the dialects of Anglo-Saxon settlers, Celts, and Norse invaders were cobbled together to create Old English. When the Norman conquerors arrived in 1066 it must have seemed natural to steal some of their vocabulary, too. By the end of the thirteenth century, more than 10,000 French words were absorbed into English — and we still use 75 percent of them today.

But we’ve done more than add a French lilt to our lingo. Those Normans also introduced us to Latin. In medicine, we have words like post-mortem and placebo, while in legal language, Latin phrases such as in camera and quid pro quo are still bounced around the courtroom. And others have crossed over into broader use; an agreement or contract signed in good faith is said to be bona fide. However, in everyday use, the phrase has become interchangeable with the word genuine and usually describes someone or something whose authenticity can be trusted.

More foreign phrases joined the fray during the marauding, seafaring days of our English-speaking ancestors, who filled their boats with strange Asian spices, exotic fabrics, and loads of new words for all the animals, garments and foods they had discovered.

Even ketchup, that favorite sidekick of French fries, is an import, starting life as a spicy pickled fish sauce in seventeenth-century China. The word is a Westernized version of the Malay word kichap, which came from koechiap, meaning fish brine. The sweet red version we love with began to take shape when American sailors added tomatoes, which are excellent for preventing scurvy. In 1876 John Heinz launched his infamous tomato ketchup and the rest, as they say, is history.

And there are stowaway words in your wardrobe as well as your pantry; your pajamas, dungarees, and even your bandanna have their origins on foreign shores. Bandanna comes from the Sanskrit word bandhana, meaning to tie, from the tie-dying technique used to decorate scarves and handkerchiefs in India. The anglicized “bandanna” was incorporated into the English language during the days of the British Raj, though they’re now more popular with wrestlers and cowboys who want to give their look a certain panache.

And while the Brits went abroad to gather additions for their dictionary, in seventeenth-century North America, words were coming to the English language by the boatload. Soon words from Italy, Poland, German, and Eastern Europe were leaping off immigrant ships and landing in the American English lexicon. To uncover the backstory on some of these, from alter ego to zeitgeist, explore the pages of A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English by Chloe Rhodes, published by Reader’s Digest, and voilá! Soon you’ll easily be able to schmooze with everyone at the next cocktail party without making a single faux pas.

© 2010 Chloe Rhodes, author of A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English
Author Bio
Chloe Rhodes, author of A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English, is a freelance journalist who has worked for The Telegraph, Guardian and The Times as well as numerous other respected publications. She lives in North London with her husband.

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