Saturday, September 1, 2001

Foreigners, come to stay

Achtung has become a part of our everyday vocabulary due to the stereotypical portrayal of German soldiers, airmen and others in fiction, comics and films dealing with the world wars. Recently, an advertising campaign for an automobile also called upon achtung to draw the attention of consumers. When danger threatens, the cry is achtung! — meaning roughly ‘Look out! Take care’. In German achtung is not just an exclamation; it is an ordinary noun too, meaning attention, esteem and respect. It belongs to the family of words derived from acht, which means attention, heed and consideration.

The Latin ad hoc means ‘towards this’. The English usage has extended the meaning to ‘for this purpose, need’ vis-a-vis ad hoc appointments. Ad hoc refers to anything created in response to a specific requirement. It contrasts, by implication, with anything created in advance, anticipating such a requirement. This contrast in sense has given the word derogatory connotations of hastily cobbled together solutions to problems easily foreseen. In this context words such as ad-hoc-ness and ad-hoc-ery have been created.


Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001
Traces of the past
May 12, 2001
April 28, 2001
Lost origins
April 14, 2001
Words and society
March 31, 2001
Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
Varied origins
March 3, 2001

Alma mater is one’s former school, college or university, a place where one receives intellectual nourishment. The Latin alma mater means ‘bountiful mother’. The Romans used alma mater for the various goddesses who were credited with bestowing nature’s bounty on humanity. The Latin verb alere, which means nourish or bring up, is the root of alma and also alumnus, meaning a former student. The female gender of alumnus is alumna. Alere is also the source of alimentary and alimony.

The French word ennui came into English in the eighteenth century, but the full spectrum of its meaning has become clear in the twentyfirst century. Ennui today stands for a world-weary listlessness brought about by a lack of ideas or activities capable of challenging the intellect. The word goes back to the Latin inodio, hateful, which in French became enui. In the thirteenth century inodio became annoy in English and enui, later ennui in French.

Politics today frequently asks for the use of the French expression coup de theatre, which literally speaking means blow of theatre. As a theatrical term, it signifies a sudden and unexpected turn of affairs that completely transforms the action of a play. It is also used for a play or theatrical production, which is a great hit. The former meaning has given a metaphorical twist to coup de theatre, leading to its usage for a more general sudden dramatic action, which seizes everyone’s attention.


Where foreign words are concerned, a language at times takes in foreign words even when there is a word existing for the same concept in its lexicon. This could happen when the conquered class is obliged to adopt words from the conqueror’s language or authors, familiar with many tongues, use words as luxuries or various groups of people, using different languages, come into close contact and borrow words from each other in the interest of mutual intelligibility. For example, the Persian badshah, Hindi raja and the Arabic nafa, laabha, agar-yadi, badnami-ninda, banisbat-apeksha and betaab-vyakul.