The dangers of digging up the past participle

'We are very fond of certain German substances of a rather abstract nature: "kitsch" and "zeitgeist" '
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The Independent Online

I am delighted to welcome back Dr Wordsmith, our lexicological wunderkind, who is prepared to tackle more of your questions on the state of the language today. Take it away, doc!

I am delighted to welcome back Dr Wordsmith, our lexicological wunderkind, who is prepared to tackle more of your questions on the state of the language today. Take it away, doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, It was interesting to see you introduced as a "wunderkind" (though I suppose that, as it is a German word, it should have a capital and be spelt "Wunderkind"). I am constantly fascinated by the way we have imported and go on importing lots of French words, but very few from Germany. Why is this?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because it is so easy for a British driver to hop on a ferry, go across to France and stock up on delicious French vocabulary at one of the many word warehouses springing up round the main French Channel ports. Then it is but the affair of a moment to skip back to England and let loose the newly acquired French nouns and verbs into the British economy. German vocabulary is much harder to import.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Are you being serious?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No, of course I'm not, dummkopf. Ah - there's another German word! You see, we have used two German words already and not a single French one. That casts a little doubt on your theory, does it not? Incidentally, you are quite wrong about giving German nouns a capital letter. In English, German imported nouns must behave like English ones and renounce their capital letter. We do not write "kindergarten" with a big K, do we?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, but...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Well, then. People tend to think, by the way, that German words started coming into the language only when they dreamt up that slogan "Vorsprung durch Technik", but we have actually been using German imports for years. Lots came in during the war - "blitzkrieg" and "Luftwaffe" and so on - and we are also very fond of certain German substances of a rather abstract nature.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Certain German substances of a rather abstract nature?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes. Such as "kitsch" and "zeitgeist" and "gestalt" and "schadenfreude" and the most popular German substance of all, which is, of course...

Dear Dr Wordsmith, "Schmalz"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No. "Angst". Could we get back to the English language now, please? Does anyone have any non-cross-Channel questions?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes. I notice that the Russian submarine that lies so tragically at the bottom of the Barents Sea is always referred to on news bulletins as "stricken". What is "stricken", and how do you get to that state?

Dr Wordsmith writes: "Stricken" is one of those archaic words that news people keep in the bottom drawer to get out when something tragic is happening. "Stricken" is merely the old and discarded past participle of "strike". "Grief-stricken" sounds a bit more noble than "grief-struck".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Any other usefully outmoded past participles you can pass on?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Sure. How about "fraught"? That actually comes from a verb that has now vanished. It is the only bit left. "Bereft" is another good one. It is in fact the old past participle of "bereave". "Pent" is quite good, too. It is the old past participle of "pen", when you mean that something is penned in or emotions are penned up. "Hove" is my favourite, though.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, The town near Brighton, you mean?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Keep up, boy, try to keep up! No, I mean "hove", the past tense of "heave", as in: "The ship hove in sight round the headland." The odd thing is that people now think there is a verb "to hove", and say things like, "I see a car hoving in sight..." But "heave" is a perfectly good word meaning "to move" of a ship, as in "heave to", so the misuse of "hove" is a new development in English right before our eyes! Remember, by the way, that we British use archaic terms for two quite opposite purposes. One is to make things seem falsely serious, which is why lawyers and clergymen use words no longer used by anyone else. "Grievous", as in "grievous bodily harm", for instance, not to mention "bodily" as well. The other is to make things seem falsely humorous. The British think it is mildly funny to call a pub landlord "mine host", or to refer to a drink as a "potation" or "tincture", or to talk about "wassailing" or "carousing"... Another thing...

Dr Wordsmith will be back again soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

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