I was looking for some word origins when I came across a long list of English words on a blog called Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The list was taken from a book entitled The 1oo most beautiful words in English, written by linguist Dr. Robert Beard, (one of the three founders of yourdictionary.com) who has been working and playing with words for over four decades. For his book, he carefully collected the words he felt were the most beautiful in the English language, and wrote an essay about each one.
What struck me most was the number of words on his list that are foreign; words that have joined the English vocabulary without even bothering to anglicize themselves.
English is a wonderful language exactly because of its multicultural aspect. Browse any good dictionary that gives the etymology for each entry, and you will find that English contains words from dozens of other languages. When they keep their original spelling, we call them foreign words, while those words that have changed to blend into the English language are called loan words. In most other languages, foreign words are adapted to better fit in with their new language, for ease of pronounciation and spelling.
One of the many things that make English such a rich language is the fact that it is actually a mixture of many languages, taking its vocabulary from a huge number of other languages.
Robert Beard’s list illustrates this so well. For example, several of the words are actually French but have been brought into English unchanged, like “portmanteau” . “Chatoyant” is another, meaning to shimmer, to have irridescence, and coming from the way the eyes of a cat have those qualities. There are some Italian words such as “imbroglio”, and “palimpsest” is a word which comes from Latin, but has Greek roots.
“Talisman” and “elixir” come to us from Arabic. “Serendipity” has a most interesting etymology, coming from Sanskrit via Arabic and Persian, and brought into English by a British author in the 18th century.
I enjoyed the list, and would like to add my personal favourite, “syzygy” which describes a configuration of three celestial bodies in a straight line, as during a solar eclipse for example. In Jungian theory, it means a union of opposites. Isn’t English fascinating?
Feel free to leave a comment and mention your own favourite words, be they foreign or English.
Note: This post has been updated to credit the author of The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English.