Miles Kington: Why not go Christmas shopping for some handy foreign words?

Even during my lifetime, more French trendy expressions have come sneaking in like rabid foxes through the Channel Tunnel
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The Independent Online

The other day I went to the Christmas market in Bath. Actually, it is not really a market so much as an encampment of wooden chalets round the old abbey, which has clearly been copied from one of the photographs you see in travel magazines accompanying an article entitled "This Year Why Not Pop Over to Munich or Cologne and do Your Christmas Shopping at One of Those Great German Christmas Markets?". To which the answer is, because it's economic suicide to travel abroad just for market day. Especially when there's a charming if inauthentic substitute down the road in Bath ...

Well, it wasn't that inauthentic. Most of the produce was British, but there was at least one stall selling Glhwein and another doing Bratwurst. I had a beaker of one, and a roll stuffed with the other, and it gave me the strength to get me through the next 10 chalets of beautifully hand-crafted but quite unnecessary wooden objects, leaving me with the unexpected thought: We all know what Glhwein and Bratwurst are, but how come there are so few other German expressions in the language?

The British soak up expressions from France greedily and indiscriminately. We say maisonette, pied-a-terre, trousseau, crche, crme de la crme, attach, corps de ballet, and even during my lifetime, more French trendy expressions have come sneaking in like rabid foxes slipping through the Channel Tunnel, such as "en suite" and "coulis", even "baguettes" and "jus", but where are all the German imports?

Kindergarten.

It's not a lot.

Delicatessen.

It's not much more. At least, I suppose that Delikatessen is German, Essen meaning "eating" and Delikat meaning "fine".

And then we all know the German for "people's car", don't we?

Volkswagen.

So that's three German expressions in English already.

The trouble is that you would expect there to be a lot more, because German and English form new compound nouns in the same rather practical, easy way, by adding one noun to another. You want a children garden? Kindergarten. A fry sausage? Bratwurst. Ice mountain? Eisberg ...

The French can't do this. They can't say "Enfant-Jardin" for kindergarten. They have to do it the long way round, by saying something like "jardin d'enfants" or "jardin enfantin". Very clumsy. They don't even have a French word for "iceberg". Their word is "iceberg". Mark you, the English don't have a word for "iceberg" either, except "iceberg". Well done, Germany ...

I wonder what the French call Glhwein at their Christmas markets, assuming they have such a German thing. I know I'll look it up in the dictionary. Hmmmm ... Vin chaud pic ... Hot spiced wine ... Yes, well, it's adequate, but it's not as good as "Glhwein", which is colourful, or "mulled wine", which is anciently picturesque. The trouble is that the French language just can't come up with the manufactured goods.

An example? Sure you can have an example. The French have no single sensible word meaning to kick. We say: "He runs down the touch-line, looks to the centre for a target and then kicks." In English, one word. In French? In French you would have to say donner un coup de pied à ... "To give a blow with the foot to ..." "He runs down the touch-line, looks to the centre for a target, and then gives a blow to the ball with his foot." No wonder little French boys don't want to be football commentators when they grow up. What a language, compared to German and English.

There may well be readers out there dying to tell me this has all changed, and that the French have thought of a word for "kick". They may well be longing to tell me about it, which of course is why I have no email address on my piece today, and indeed have not had for 20 years. But I bet you one thing. If the French do now have a word meaning "kick", I'd be surprised if it was a French word, and I would suspect it might be a word not unlike "kick" ...

STOP PRESS: I have just learnt that the French football world has adopted the word "shooter" for the act of kicking a football. How satisfying ...

Coming soon: Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude and Battenberg cake.

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