By Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
The final authority in the English language is “common usage.” The Oxford English Dictionary sets out current British English. Webster’s Dictionary is the “last word” in American English. Common usage trumps them both, and there is necessarily a time-lag between when a word enters a language and when it can become “codified” in a dictionary or in a translating program.
During the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, and after the advent of the Internet in the latter part of the 20th Century, avalanches of new words fell on the desks and into the computers of compilers of dictionaries and programs. Many words also fell into disuse. Some are still in the reference material, labeled “archaic;” some have disappeared entirely.
No matter how up-to-date dictionaries and other reference material might be, there are often disparate meanings that don’t make it into even the best of them. In the UK, “skivvies” are unpleasant people, while in the USA “skivvies” are under-garments. In the UK a “rubber” is a pencil eraser; in the USA a “rubber” is a condom. And so on.
The term “electronic mail” entered the English language soon after the Internet was created. In the USA the rendering of this term soon settled down as “email.” Elsewhere, it was, and is, often written as “e-mail.” In the French-speaking part of the world where I live, an email message is often referred to as “a mail” or “un mail,” even by Anglophones.
There is a perfectly good reason for this. The French word for “enamel” is “émail.” There is un accent aigu on the “e” and the “l” is not pronounced (unless the following word begins with a vowel), but there is the clear possibility that “émail” might be confused with “email.”
In French, “mail” sent via the post is “courrier.” Using the English word “mail” to describe an electronic message, in French or in English, even if it is used to avoid confusion with “émail/enamel” muddies the entry of “email” into accepted lexicography in both languages.
In American English, “lawyer” and “attorney” are synonymous. They translate into French as “avocat,” which is also the French word for “avocado,” but never mind. In the UK, lawyers and attorneys are called “barristers” and “solicitors.” The terms are not synonymous. Barristers and solicitors have different duties and areas of expertise.
Enter Starbucks. Since Starbucks and other go-to-the-counter coffee houses became massively popular world-wide, the term “barrista” has largely replaced words like “bartender,” “barman” and “bar-keep.” It has also created confusion with the British English term “barrister.” Avocats in French-speaking areas often use the word “barrister” when writing their curricula vitae (resumes) in English. I have recommended that they use either “lawyer” or “attorney.” Brits will understand what it means and no one will think the avocat’s profession is serving coffee.
When I left the USA over 30 years ago, there were “Mom and Pop” stores. They were small, independently owned stores that sold groceries and sundries, a niche that outfits like 7/11 chain stores tried (by and large successfully) to exploit. In spite of the massive presence of 7/11-type stores, small, privately owned stores continue to exist in many neighborhoods. Nowadays they are called “bodegas.” The word comes from Puerto Rico. It took hold in Porto Rican enclaves in New York City and has since spread around the world.
The expression “To keep up with the Joneses” goes back many decades in the USA. If your neighbors the Joneses put in a swimming pool or upgrade their family car, and if you envy them for so doing and put in a swimming pool of your own or upgrade your vehicle, you are “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Sometime during the 1990’s the expression morphed into a verb, “to jones,” which means to have a strong desire for something: “I jones for the latest Apple device.”
Dictionaries and translating programs are the basic resources for understanding the “Breaking News” of new words entering a language. But they are not enough. There is that time-lag between the appearance of a word and its acceptance into a language; that is, its entry into a major dictionary or translating program.
There are local anomalies like the attempt to avoid confusion between “émail” (enamel) and “courrier électronique” (email). There is also the problem of similarities in pronunciation, as between “barrista” and “barrister.”
Translators can have desks groaning under the weight of hot-off-the-press dictionaries and they can have computers stuffed full of even the most recent translating programs. These resources are out-of-date the moment they leave the publisher because language, “common usage,” is always several steps ahead of what’s included in those resources.
An expert translator is out there ahead of the dictionaries and programs. She not only has expertise in the historical, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds of the languages she translates to and from: she is embedded in evolving language itself and doesn’t have to wait for the resource material to catch up with her.
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
About the Author: Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.