Borrowed Words: A History Of Loanwords In English by Philip Durkin (book review).

I’ve always regarded English as a bastard language. That sounds better than calling it a vulgar language. Not in the rude sense but just that it’s…well…a common language. Calling English a bastard language is also not because it’s illegitimate but because it is a composite of so many languages from various invasions, becoming a universal language by default. Latin from the Romans, Scandinavian from the Vikings and French from across the English Channel. English picks up foreign words and adds them to its vocabulary in a way other languages struggle trying to translate them and ultimately use them as they are. With English, even if that’s the only language I use, nothing seems that out of place despite a word’s origins. Frequently, throughout this book, the source isn’t always what it appears.

Philip Durkin would describe my description as ‘loanwords’, where particular nouns and verbs are taken from other languages. In his book, ‘Borrowed Words’, he examines how this has evolved with some fascinating insight. Although I’ve treated American English as a separate dialect, it never dawned on me until now that African English has also adopted Afrikaan words into it that we wouldn’t normally see over here. Japan has added the least loanwords to our language in recent years. Interestingly, Durkin has used American spellings using ‘z’ than ‘s’ in his text. I assume Oxford University Press are seeing greater sales in the USA than in the UK.


One thing that kept popping up in my head throughout reading was how much English was a common tongue uniting a lot of minor languages existing in Great Britain. It doesn’t explain why Welsh spelling didn’t come across nor why there aren’t more Cornish words. In fact, a lot of our words have Celtic origins. Then again, as much as Durkin points out Germanic sources for some of our words, he doesn’t explain why more of their complicated spellings didn’t come across. Don’t confuse that with modern German words we’ve either recognised or accepted. I suspect a lot of the time that has more to do with why reinvent the wheel when there’s a perfectly good word already being used that is also descriptive for its purpose. There are exceptions. One that I remember from years ago was the German for brassiere was ‘bustenhalter’ or bust holder. We might have adopted the word ‘bust’ from the Germans earlier but the later modification has a French origin which has a bit more class if you think about it. Now that would have been an interesting example that I wish Durkin had considered although as probably a family-like book, he also doesn’t explore where the various swear words originate from neither.

Durkin is very good at pointing out when certain changes happened but not why. We all know that the names of the days of the week came from the Scandinavian gods but not why Moonday…er…Monday or Sunday kept their Latin names, especially an none of them had any connotation to the main religions or were changed to reflect that later. Interestingly, Durkin points out that all month names are mostly French, with a couple scattered Roman emperors, which we all knew. For both, it would have made sense to explore what they replaced as we must surely have had names for these time periods before adopting these names as being better alternatives and which indeed are now common across the world.

There are a lot of hidden surprises. I mean did you know that the term ‘brunette’ comes from the Italian ‘bruno’ (brown not bear) and then ‘brunetta’? I’m going to have to have a re-think as I tended to see brunette as a colour closer to black.

The final section explores more modern words and I suspect will be enjoyed the most by those who buy this book. There are a lot of surprises from where words are sourced and a reminder that we still include existing words than re-invent new names. When you consider that English has a couple hundred or so new words that have come into common use every time an established dictionary has an update and some of these are composites of existing words does illustrate us as a people who likes naming things.

I’m glad Durkin explains the usage of Latin for our scientific names for animals but not why we adopted less exact names for common usage although I suspect saying you saw a Panthera tigris or Panthera leo rather than tiger or lion shows more commonsense for day-to-day usage when running from them, although many Latin names aren’t so readily adaptable. I’m a bit puzzled why the Latin technical terms for the skeleton never stuck in our language, especially when you consider ‘scapula’ is a shorter word than shoulder bone’.

For those who use or eat them, coleslaw, cookie and bowery are Dutch sourced. Considering that old New Amsterdam before it before New York was full of Dutch people, this might explain their use across the pond. For the Americans among you, Durkin points out that ‘cookie’ can be traced back to Scottish English meaning a ‘plain bun’ which appears to have fallen out of use over here, so it’s not even Dutch. Not even a biscuit which was a surprise to me considering that is what the Americans use the word for. It would be interesting to see if Durkin would look to see how many of these loanwords have been adapted into different ways than they were originally intended. Likewise, as with ‘cookie’, do loanwords go back even further than one other language.

Some words were a surprise. Take ‘rucksack’. German, despite ‘sack’ being English. Likewise, you would think the spelling would give away where it was sourced from so look at ‘abseil’ and ‘noodle’ a little more closely. Both German.

Looking at Spanish words that we’ve adopted was also quite an eye-opener. ‘Rodeo’, ‘lariat’ and ‘stampede’ are Spanish surprisingly. Although when you consider that the Spanish moved into Mexico, there must have been some cross-mixing of words between the two peoples. This re-enforced the thought of each language has its own share of loanwords?

We’ve certainly adopted a lot of Chinese meal names but I bet you didn’t know they were the source for the word ‘ketchup’?

As I read all the word sources, I couldn’t help wonder what words English had them before the foreign words were adapted. More and more, I came away from this book thinking that this book confirmed English was just a composite language shaped by what it could take from other languages to fill it out. Interestingly we didn’t appear to adopt their diction where some languages is back to front to our own.

For a period when the monks rules the roost, written English was replaced by Latin. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Durkin was making a blanket statement. We’ve seen a lot of languages vanish without a trace in recent years because there was no one left alive to speak it but if any version survives then someone must still have been using it. Although Durkin only shows a few examples of olde English, the refinements in spelling weren’t done in the ad hoc way the Americans did but from a practical point of view than just switching letters around.

As you can tell from the length of this review and the way I’m reacting I learnt a lot from this book and the examples above are things I didn’t really know and only the tip of the iceberg as to what else I’ve learnt. If you’re into the history of words, not to mention the evolution of English, then this book is just waiting for you to read. Even more remarkable, unlike other books, Durkin or the editors took time to have the footnotes on the relevant pages so no need to page flick all the time.

This doesn’t mean I’ve read it without fault. I still wish Durkin had covered why we took on particular words for certain common objects from one language and not another. Would it have been a date thing or not a better choice? Such things will no doubt be covered in another book so this makes an excellent primer into how English has grown from other languages over the centuries.

GF Willmetts

July 2013

(pub: Oxford University Press. 491 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £35.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-19-957499-5)

check out website:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.