Are you sure…?

According to a famous paraphrase of a quote by James D Nicoll, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages.  It follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” And loose vocabulary, we might add, wondering at two-thirds of English filled with foreign loanwords.  (Repayment is not likely in this lifetime, I guess).

Not content with that indebtedness of English language, upstart writers use their limited grasp of foreign language words and use them liberally often becoming les objets de raillerie (objects of ridicule).  Those you know well, you can correct. The others that you know only too well (out to claim “look, how versatile am I”) – allow yourself a hearty laugh and let it rip.  Here’s a small collection of comical goofs.

…I’ve seen many faux paus in modern society…

Ah, the inevitable social stumble, the misstep, the usage blunder. From the French for “false step,” the phrase faux pas, pronounced “foe pa,” is one of the first foreign phrases many of us learn. That word pas, by the way, is the same ‘step’ that appears in pas de deux, the French equivalent of the two-step – or is it the Cotton-Eyed Joe? Here our reviewer apparently attempted to form a plural through a spelling change, but has merely managed to change the pronunciation to “foe poe.”

In an interesting aside, the plural of faux pas is faux pas, however the plural is pronounced “foe pas.” 

…I think she deserved every kudo…

When I saw this one, coffee almost came out of my nose. People, people… The word kudos has been picked from the back pocket of our Greek friends. It arrives with a literal meaning of “magical glory” and a common meaning of “effusive praise.” The word is not, however, a plural! Therefore, each single morsel of praise, no matter how small, is kudos in its own right.

When used as the subject of a sentence, by the way, the word takes a singular verb: not “kudos were rained on his head,” but “kudos was rained on his head.” If you have trouble remembering this, it helps to remember that the terminal ‘S’ is not pronounced like a ‘Z’ but as a soft ‘S’ – in other words, it doesn’t rhyme with “rose”; the last letter has the same sound as “ross.”

… forced the citizens to cow-tow to the new ruler…

Happily, I wasn’t drinking coffee at the time. Here, our coiner apparently has a bovine female that’s in need of assistance. Presumably s/he’ll call some Cattle Farmers Association for a tow truck? Ahhh, I get it now: the desired word was “kowtow,” a word borrowed from Mandarin Chinese and meaning “to bow obsequiously; to show servility.”

Since the word has been transliterated from a language that doesn’t use the western alphabet, some might – sigh – be inclined to cut the writer some slack. After all, the spelling of Moammar Khadafy/Ghadafi/Qadaffi/etc. changes randomly for that same reason. Except that kowtow has been in common usage for more than a century, so no slack’s coming from me!

…my truck has been horse de combat for more than a month…

Ohhhhhh, Willlllburrrr… It’s a darned shame that the spellchecker couldn’t catch this one before it galloped onto the site. Obviously, our author meant to use the French hors de combat, meaning “out of action.” Equally obviously, our author doesn’t know that the terminal ‘S’ in hors is silent, or perhaps s/he would have said the vehicle was whores de combat. I don’t know, though, that s/he didn’t try it and gave up – it’s hard to sneak that particular spelling past the in-line fil(th)ter.

And there you have it.

Not merely a small collection of comical goofs, but living proof that the Grammar Curmudgeon is human, too. Whatever else you take away from this little diatribe, next time you decide to dress up your writing with a foreign phrase or two, do some research – especially if you don’t happen to speak that particular language. Otherwise, you might end up seeing so many poke fun at a slightly altered version of your prose a few months down the road. 🙂

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