Daily Archives: October 28, 2009

calque & loanword

“Long time no see!” Marilyn exclaimed untruthfully as I approached. “Here,” she said to Edgar, handing him her plate so she could hug me, “take the cake.”

“No,” he leered, taking it, “you take the cake.”

“You both – unh – take the cake,” I said, as Marilyn crushed me against her leather-clad bosom.

At this point Maury happened by. “I’d say you take the calque,” he said.

“Oh,” Marilyn exclaimed, releasing me, “is this cake a calque?”

“No,” he said, “it’s a chiffon cake. Made in a Bundt pan.” He made it, so he would know.

“Which makes it two loanwords,” I pointed out.

“Indeed. But takes the cake is, arguably, a calque – from the Greek. The phrase translates directly from the Greek in Aristophanes.”

“Surely,” Edgar interjected, swallowing, “the Greeks were not the only people to use cakes as prizes. The term could have come up independently.”

“Indeed it could have,” Maury said, “like your Adam’s apple. But not like Adam’s apple.”

“A calque from the French,” I said, with a smiling nod: “pomme d’Adam.” (Marilyn leaned over to Edgar and murmured something which I suspect was “I’ll French your Adam’s apple!”) “And,” I continued, “long time no see is a calque from Chinese, exactly word for word. In Mandarin, it’s hao jiu bu jian. Though hao in most contexts would be translated as ‘good.'”

“‘Good time no see’?” Marilyn cocked her head. “That would sound rather impolite. And unfortunate: not seeing a good time.” She gave a calcareous, calculated grin and traced a seam on Edgar’s jacket with her red-polished fingernail.

“Tracing is the origin of calque,” I said, trying to keep their pursuits in the intellectual realm. “French calque, noun, ‘copy,’ comes from calquer, verb, ‘trace,’ which itself traces back to Latin calcare, verb, ‘tread.'”

“Well, it may look like an elegant word,” Marilyn said, “with the que and that nice c to start, but it sounds like a cat coughing up a furball. Especially if you underpronounce the /l/. I’m glad this cake isn’t a calque.”

“You’re not alone,” I said; Maury finished my pun: “But it is.” (A loan, of course.) “Chiffon, as James pointed out. A French word originally meaning ‘rag’ but coming to mean a light, diaphanous fabric. And by transference from that, light and fluffy pies and cakes.”

“In this case, as made by Maury, Bundt,” I added, and got a low-lidded look over the lenses from Maury, who did not wish more moribund jokes. But I simply said “From German for ‘turban.'”

Loanword,” Edgar said, rolling it on his tongue. “There’s a nice English formation, ironically. Loan plus word, both great old Anglo-Saxon four-letter monosyllables. Low and liquid, almost moaning, so unlike calque.” Marilyn responded predictably to this: she became lower and more liquid and almost moaned as she creaked her leather garments against his while taking their pieces of dessert and setting them on a side table behind him. Maury’s eyes rolled… rolled away and he followed them.

“Even more ironic,” I said, trying valiantly to maintain a conversation. “Loanword is actually taken from German Lehnwort.”

Marilyn looked up abruptly. “So it’s a calque!”

“Yes,” I said, “and calque is a loanword.”

“A semantic exchange,” Edgar said, cocking his eyebrow. “An exchange of tongues, as it were.” (Marilyn murmured, audibly, “As it will be…”) He smiled. “That takes the cake.”

Marilyn reached for the side table and came up empty. “Speaking of the cake,” she said, “where is it?”

“Maury took it,” I said, not without schadenfreude, and headed off to get my own piece.



Thanks to Wilson Fowlie for suggesting this pairing and the amusing twin ironies it presents.


Amid the aftermath of verbal bacchanals, a bit of bad bearing can sometimes bring out interesting phonetic effects. One morning after a late night of wine, words, and song, as I was struggling with almond butter on toast, Elisa Lively – who really is, and sometimes a bit too much – came bouncing up with a book.

“Look!” she said, thrusting an open page spread between me and my bread. “Cachexy! It’s so sexy!”

She pronounced it like “ka-check-see.” I felt obliged to correct her. However, with my head thumping and my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth, I grimaced out something that was intended to be “ka-keck-see” but involved two phonemes not heard in English, one of them three times: the /k/ realized with not the tip nor the back but the full-on middle of the tongue against the hard palate, and the /s/ made by hissing out the sides of the mouth with the tongue still stuck to the top.

“Oh, yes, ‘ka-keck-see,’ I see!” she chirped.

“From Greek kakos, ‘bad,’” I said, having recovered my tongue, “and hexia, ‘condition.’ Means just that: general ill health, malnutrition, that sort of fun. That must be a medical book.”

“No, it’s philosophy,” she beamed. “The author is writing of a fin-de-siècle Weltschmerz.”

I have a fin-de-semaine Kopfschmerz, I thought, but left it unsaid.

“But,” she continued, “say it again! You said it really interestingly!”

“What, cachexy? Oh…” I made a weak smile and grimaced out the almond-butter version again. My head hurt a little with every exclamatory k.

“Aren’t those sounds from Hindi?”

“Well, no, I think the stops in Hindi that are like this are done more with the tip curled back rather than with the body. The hissing s, aside from being said in English by some with oral dysfunctions, is like a sound in Welsh, the voiceless lateral, ll, only I’m doing it with my teeth clenched, which makes the pitch higher.”

“Well, what’s really interesting about it –” she made some tries at it, sounding like she was suppressing emesis, which did not serve my guts well: “k! k! ks! – is that when you have your tongue full-on pressed like that it tends to make an affricate when you release it.”

“Mm-hmm. Yes. So our x, which is not an affricate, meets its two parts in the middle and becomes one.” I reached for my cup of tea and succeeded in causing it to fall and shatter on the floor. I stood wincing for a moment before searching for something to clean it up with. Elisa observed me and then reached down to help.

“Say,” she said, ever the observant one, “you’re looking a bit dodgy this morning. I hope it’s nothing bad?”

“A bit of a bad condition,” I said, trying to wipe up with my eyes half-open. “But transitory. Could be worse. Could be cachexy.” I couldn’t smile because I was wincing.

She couldn’t resist a little play with the sound, which, it turns out, is less charming from the receiving end at the wrong time. “Well, I hope it’s not catching. Should I call you a taxi?”

“No,” I said, warming to it in spite of myself. “Similia similibus curantur: like cures like. Just pour me a Metaxa.”