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A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English    by Chloe Rhodes order for
Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi
by Chloe Rhodes
Order:  USA  Can
Readers Digest, 2010 (2010)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Have you ever wondered about the origin of some of the odd phrases in common usage? If you know any foreign languages, the words themselves are often the main clue (as in the French phrase in the title) but it's not always that obvious.

Chloe Rhodes, the author of A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi": The Origin of Foreign Words Used in English, tells us that 'English speakers have been linguistic magpies since at least the fifth century'. The Normans brought French words and Latin, the British Empire injected phrases from all over the world, and words spilled 'from the immigrant ships to be mopped up by the giant lexical sponge of American English.'

Rhodes' selection starts with A cappella and ends with Zeitgeist. She includes a definition for each word or phrase, describes its origins, and offers an amusing sentence showing context of use. Black and white sketches throughout add to the humorous tone of the book. While many French, German, Greek, and Latin origins were familiar to me, I was surprised to see such broad coverage from languages including Arabic, Malay, Japanese, Sanskrit, Hindi, Turkish and Russian.

For example, Algebra (which originally meant reunion) was first used by a Persian mathematician; Anorak (used in the UK to describe a winter jacket) originated in Greenland Inuit; Honcho meant a Japanese squad leader; Juggernaut was Sanskrit for lord of the universe; Ketchup (my favorite for its absurdity) means fish brine in Malay; Paparazzi came from the Italian for mosquitos; and Robot from the Czech for drudgery.

If these examples intrigue you, get hold of a copy of A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi" and dip into it yourself. It's great fun and you just might learn something new along the way.

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