Did you know these 'English' words come from other languages?

You need to know them because they are, in fact, commonly used in English, while remaining recognisably foreign

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Thu 22 Feb 2024, 8:54 PM

From time to time this column has delved into the foreign origins of English words, but this week I’d like to discuss foreign words that are commonly used in English, but remain in their original languages and have not undergone transmutations of spelling or usage. Yet you need to know them because they are, in fact, commonly used in English, while remaining recognisably foreign.

One arena where a number of such phrases is used is the judiciary; judges are inordinately fond of them, often using phrases taken straight from Latin or French for ideas that could be easily expressed in English. Thus an amicus curiae is a “friend of the court” — someone appointed by the judges to delve into an issue in greater detail than the judges have time for, to advise the court. The Indian Supreme Court prides itself on being “a sentinel on the qui vive”, which simply means it’s “on the alert”, qui vive translating to “who lives?” in French. Judges also like to use phrases like de jure (according to the law), quid pro quo (to refer to one thing given in exchange for another) sub rosa (for “secretly”), in toto (“the whole thing”), and “status quo” for the existing state of affairs. A particular favourite is suo moto, sometimes wrongly spelled suo motu, relating to an action taken by a court of its own accord, without any request by the parties involved. The phrase suo moto is Latin for “on its own motion”; thus, “the Supreme Court had taken suo moto notice of the case”.

Just in case anyone reading this is a budding lawyer (or if you just like reading news reports about court cases!), here’s more judicial Latin you need to know: ad locum (at the place), ad interim (in the meantime or temporarily), ad valorem (in proportion to its value), ipso facto (by the fact itself), modus operandi (the method of doing something), modus vivendi (a way of living together), nota bene (note carefully or mark well), ex officio (by virtue of the office a person holds), persona non grata (a person no longer welcome), pro tem (temporarily, used for an acting office-holder, such as a President pro tem), pari passu (side-by-side, at the same rate or equally), and sine anno (without a specific date).

For those of us who are happy to steer clear of the courts, there’s still a few expressions we need to know that aren’t, strictly speaking, English but are still used widely by native speakers. You might be invited to dine alfresco (outdoors) by an inamorata (a female romantic companion); and if you had hoped you were going incognito (with your identity concealed) and you don’t behave, you could be caught up in an imbroglio (a difficult situation, a complicated mess). She might be a prima donna (a vain woman) who, for a divertissement (entertainment), wants to be taken to an expensive concert, where she can applaud a maestro (a master conductor or composer) of whom she is an aficionado (a fan or devotee), giving a virtuoso (highly skilled) performance that’s a tour de force (literally a “tower of strength”, but meaning an exceptional achievement). You might have approached the ingénue (innocent young woman) with éclat (flair) and élan (vivacity), but since you don’t enjoy music, be reduced to ennui (boredom). As soon as it’s over, you decide to carpe diem (seize the day, or grab an opportunity), but you are caught in flagrante delicto (“in blazing offence”, or “in the course of a transgression”) by her father, who demands to know what you think you are doing. Unable to come up with a quick riposte (a quick reply), and with no great talent for repartee (a quick and witty response), you are struggling for the mot juste (the right word, the perfect expression) for your act of dolce far niente (sweet idleness). No longer attired comme il faut (properly), your amour proper (self-esteem) in tatters, you flee in dedecus (disgrace). Bonne chance! (Good luck).

As you might have surmised, all these expressions are from a melange (mixture) of European languages, mostly French, Italian, Spanish and Latin. Unsurprising — such things usually happen only in Europe!


More news from Lifestyle