A telephone conversation I had today reminds me of one of my favourite quotes about the English language:The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
My mother tongue isn't as promiscuous, but we do like to borrow, too. Sometimes these things happen in weird ways, like with Keks
, our word for biscuits, which we got by adapting the English plural cakes
. The word Biskuit
is something slightly different; it's what we call a sponge (cake). Then again, the English word biscuit
is French in origin and the French got it through Latin (panis) bis coctus
which is (bread) twice-baked. In German, we just translated the expression and eat Zwieback
and it is a special kind of sweet and hard biscuit (baked twice of course!).
But that's not what the telephone conversation was about. You see, we like to borrow from English and that can lead to problems, especially when you use English words for the name of your business, like in this example
. So, I've got a student on work experience with a photographer. I called to arrange a visit and spoke to the owner's mother-in-law. She told me that my student was out on assignment photographing babies and toddlers in a big shop where they sell prams and cots and toys and baby clothes and so on. If I wanted to I could visit my student there tomorrow. She gave me the name of the place and I heard it as Baby Wann
, as in the German word for when
and in German the W
is pronounced like an English v
(which you all know thanks to "Vee are ze Gestapo. Vee ask ze questions").
I assumed that Wann
was the name of the owners and yes, baby
is another word we borrowed, but as we've been using it since the 19th century, it's become totally unremarkable and doesn't strike anyone as foreign.
Grandma couldn't tell me the address of the shop, so I decided to make sure that I knew how to spell it and asked "Is that Wann
with a W
?". "No", she said, "it starts with an O
, it's ohne
without the h
". It took me a while to figure it out, but then it clicked: That shop is called Baby One
Even though I've got the name sorted out now, I still think I'm going to give that place a miss and visit my student next week.