calque and others: words for a worded time

January 31, 2007

before i address the future of the Whig party (lo, a wondrous topic!), it seems high time I publish another word of the day column lest my readers further fret that i’ve abandoned my lexicographical ambitions for populous piffle. earlier today, in one such dispatch on the most watched television program of the year, i mentioned the bizarre transformation of “Naptown” into “City of Siestas.” though this at first seems a monstrosity, it is apparently an example of a well-known linguistic phenomenon called “calque.”

the OED defines a calque as, “a loan translation.” a brilliant simplification, if i may say so. most of the quotes are unhelpful, but the last one makes a lot of sense. “1958 A. S. C. ROSS Etym. 34 MnE that goes without saying is a translation-loan of (better, is calqued on) MnFrench cela va sans dire.” A calque is basically a phrase translated literally into another language. wikipedia, the repository of all the world’s information (non-Widener library edition), has this great page on calques.

bonus bellow love: rereading Herzog, I’m once again amazed by Bellow’s abilities with words. it’s a gift that the rest of us (non-DeLillo edition) don’t have. somewhere in Herzog, Bellow makes use of the Yiddish word kaddish in a slightly unusual context.  the kaddish is the memorial prayer, typically recited for one’s parents, and Yiddish speaking parents would often lovingly refer to their children as their kaddish, e.g. the one that will say kaddish for them. Bellow clearly uses the word in this sense in Herzog, however this is unfortunately missed by the volume’s editor, James Wood, who annotates the word as “memorial prayer.” while he’s right, he’s completely missed the sense of the use.

and as proof of his mastery of the english langauge: “out of the trapped air of the black shaft into the porphyry facade of the moldy lobby, into the crowded street.”

porphyry is not a noun in common currency. the word original refers to a specific type of purplish Egyptian stone, but has come to be extended to mean any “attractive red or purple stone taking a high polish.” this is almost definitely Bellow’s intended meaning. given its Egyptian, high polish origins, the word has a highbrow, stuffy nature about it. like the other locations, the “trapped” shaft, and the crowded street, the porphyry moldy lobby is lifeless and suffocating; it is also decayed. it is not just an ugly purple lobby, rather it is one that aspired to be something else.

2 Responses to “calque and others: words for a worded time”

  1. codyhess Says:

    Any reference as specific/obscure as “(non-DeLillo edition)” merits a link. And I want a link.

  2. […] today on the word for ‘vocabulary’ in Hebrew–otzar milim. otzar milim is a direct calque for the German worschatz, both translating literally into English as “treasure of […]

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