Boomerang vocabulary: words that return to their origins

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“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” may have been good advice for Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it isn’t practical for a language. English is both an avid borrower (ballet, schmooze, wok) and a generous lender: consider German das Baby, French le week-end, and Japanese aisu kuriimu (‘ice cream’—try saying it out loud). Occasionally, these two processes are combined in a relatively rare class of loanword: a reborrowing, or what we might call a “boomerang word.” These are loanwords which are altered through naturalization in a foreign language and subsequently borrowed back into their language of origin, like a student coming home from a year abroad with a new wardrobe and an affected accent.

From karaoke to anime: boomerang words from Japan

In recent decades, we have seen several such boomerang words from Japan. Reborrowings from Japanese are facilitated by a tendency towards clipping of loanwords, so that they take on a new form while retaining enough flavor of the original to be readily taken up again by English speakers. Another factor is the popularity of certain aspects of contemporary Japanese popular culture in the English-speaking world, which provides the impetus to borrow back these terms. The most famous Japanese boomerang word is probably anime, used in English to refer to Japanese animation, but in Japan to mean animation generally. The word animation was borrowed into Japanese by 1959 (as animēshon) and then came back into English in its altered form starting in about 1985. Similarly, cosplay, referring to the pastime of dressing up in costume, comes from Japanese kosupure, which dates back to 1982 in Japanese, where it was formed as an abbreviation of an earlier Japanicization of English costume play. Even karaoke is a hybrid reborrowing: the first element, kara,‘empty’, is Japanese, but the second ōke, is short for ōkesutora, from English orchestra.

Why mohair isn’t made from the hair of a ‘mo’

A few centuries earlier, we can see the boomerang phenomenon taking place between English and French. Moire, a type of silk fabric treated so that it has a rippled appearance, was originally made with mohair, and the term for the fabric is a French alteration of that English word. Moire is attested in French from 1639; the first English evidence comes from Samuel Pepys, who used the word in his diary just over twenty years later, when he “bought some greene watered Moyre for a morning wastecoate.” [Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what sort of animal a ‘mo’ is, you may be interested in the history of the word mohair itself: it comes originally from Arabic muḵayyar (literally ‘choice, select’), with the change in ending coming from association with the English word hair.] Another fashion-related reborrowing from this period is redingote. We don’t see them much these days outside of costume dramas, but this word for a once-popular style of men’s or women’s coat also took the round trip from English to French and back. The French word, dating to the early 18th century, is a corruption of English riding coat.

In all of the examples above, the English word has changed its meaning as well as its form in being borrowed back into English. After all, why would we reborrow a word which didn’t fill a new lexical role? However, there is a recent counterexample to this general rule: craic. The Irish English use of the word crack, meaning ‘amusement, enjoyable social activity,’ is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary from at least 1966. It isn’t attested in the Irish language until a few years later, spelled craic. Shortly thereafter, in 1972, we see the first example of the form craic in English:

1972 Irish Independent 8 July 18 Traditional musicians, singers and dancers gathered for the ‘craic’…during Flea Nua ’72.

The adoption of the Irish spelling underscores that this is an Irish usage, and makes the distinction in meaning clear, whereas crack has a wide variety of senses, some of which could result in confusing or (in the case of the sense ‘crack cocaine’) disastrous misunderstandings. Evidence on the Oxford English Corpus suggests the craic spelling now dominates in English usage for the ‘amusement’ meaning.

The back-and-forth pattern of these boomerang etymologies is a reminder that the biographies of words are as complex as the history which gives them birth. The main etymon of a word is rarely the whole story, and even relatively recent additions to our lexicon often have hidden depths.

To find out more go to Oxford Words Blog

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