1 August 2012

Words Come and Go

My ‘word of the week’ last week was disenfranchise. For some reason, a word I’d never used before came to me in the midst of working and I ended up using it at least twice in the week. The thing is, if you were to ask me to give a definition for it, I’d be lost for words. However, there and then, I knew it was the right word for what I needed to convey in the document I was translating. Is it only me or is this popping up of words quite common among translators?

It’s funny how there are words stored in our brain that we’d never think to use in our everyday life, for no apparent reason other than we’ve never found the need to; this is probably because we have another ‘linguistic building block’ (word, phrase) to explain the same concept or, depending on who you’re with, you might be able to switch to another language on-the-go to get the idea across.

In any case, those words are in there somewhere. Words one picks up from reading, from listening to others, from watching TV, words we pick up without noticing. That is, until they find their way out of the neuronal prison we place them in. Once they’re out, they roam around until, more often than not, they settle in our ‘front of mind’ ready to be used again at will. And, although we probably won’t be using them in our day-to-day life, they can come in handy for our work as translators.

Strangely though, they sometimes creep back into the neuronal burrow where they came from and disappear into some sort of linguistic ether, leaving but a tiny imprint of their existence outside our brain. I think disenfranchise could be one of them. It probably has to do with the fact that I don’t really have a feeling for the word, I find it too clinical, so to speak. I get no vibes off it.

Talking of vibes, not so long ago I was chatting online on an American internet radio station with fellow listeners. Because I maintain that I never really knew how to speak English until I lived in the UK (despite having a British education in Spain and being spoken to in English at home by my mum), I find it really interesting to observe how people actually speak, or write in an informal setting like online chatting; how they express their liking or disliking for a piece of music or an artist or their opinion on a certain event. Having experienced nightlife in the UK almost 20 years ago I don’t really know how (young) people ‘speak’ in real life anymore. So these chat sessions (which take place twice a year, for a fortnight each time, during the station’s fundraising live programming) are the perfect place for me to stay up to date with ‘street parlance’ both in the US and the UK.

I think it’s funny how words that traditionally have a negative connotation are now consistently used on both sides of the pond to signify the epitome of positiveness, with the Brits having a liking for wicked (this one harks back a few decades now) and Americans prone to using sick and dope, for instance. That I’m aware of, this has never been the case in Spanish. Or, how something that is hot is also usually cool. Explain that to a physicist!

I have also observed (through watching British ‘telly’ as well) that the US has become an exporter of idioms. For some reason I thought that language would always expand and evolve outwards (applying the logic of the physical universe!). Quite naively, of course. Obviously it makes more sense (especially in such a globalised, TV-driven world) that the world of British English would eventually import/absorb part of the American English culture into its own language.

Of course, these observations are wide generalisations. Obviously, it’s not only time and place which set linguistic trends but there are also social factors at play in the words used. What words are used in a wealthy area of a big city won’t be the same as in a deprived area of the same city, nor the same as in a smaller town 300 miles away.

I recently learned about the word poquero in Spanish (though I guess it’s probably written pokero by people in real life) which as far as I know isn’t related to poker (though there might be some connotation as to a liking of gambling card games, who knows). From what I gather, it's similar to what is known as choni. Now, I’m not sure if choni is for females only and poquero is for males only (I harbour a guess that they are) and they actually co-exist in modern day parlance. Neither do I know if these are words that are used in Madrid only. To those who’re lost as to what I’m talking about, the British equivalent (at least similar in its social and behavioural connotations) would be, I guess, chav… now, is there a female-only word related to chav or is it a unisex word? What about chavette? A bit like lads and ladettes

Indeed, these are all words that’ll come and go as society changes and evolves… just like the words held in our neuronal prisons, they’ll turn up again eventually, after they’ve been lost in everyday speak… In any case, going back to our generalisation, I wonder what the it words were in the post-war 50’s, the roaring 20’s or even in 19th Century London, New York or Madrid, for instance. I’m sure someone’s written about this! Any bibliographical suggestions, anyone?


  1. Hablando de "hot" y "cool", en español hay un uso erróneo de la expresión "álgido". "El momento más álgido del debate" se refiere al punto más intenso, crítico, al más "caliente", contrario a la primera definición que la RAE hace de "álgido": Muy frío.

    Finalmente, el repetido (mal) uso llevó a aceptar su inclusión en el diccionario. La lengua, tal como dices, evoluciona y muta, acorde con los usos y la sociedad.

    1. Bienvenido y gracias por contribuir al debate. Efectivamente, al final, el uso del lenguaje termina determinando el lenguaje en sí. El caso que comentas es parecido al de "bizarro", cuyo significado original en castellano ha sido olvidado para terminar retornando a su significado etimológico original proveniente del francés (también exportado al inglés). En esta época tan deportiva, se podría decir "como en un doble salto" lingüístico, o de forma más prosaica "en una vuelta de tuerca" lingüística.