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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Careless Pirates


masala_chaiTo create a great language simply plunder other tongues of their attractive words, assimilate them and profess longstanding ownership.

English proves this. Oxford has half a million distinct words. Add technical and slang and you’ve topped one million, says the Global Language Monitor. Most are swag. Unfortunately, piracy can be thoughtless.

We are all accomplices, but some of us leave incriminating evidence, impeding smooth integration. For example, we call that vast North African desolation the Sahara, Arabic for desert. But who can resist yoking the words? Desert is implicit, says Bernstein; same goes for Sierra Mountains.

And staying with Arabic, there’s Sharia law? Sharia means Islamic canonical law. Yet, you can come across the pairing of these words a dozen times a day.    

But the most difficult category is food. We love other cultures’ cuisine, but seem reluctant to integrate their names.

Some may remember Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore” in the ’50s: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” Martin began life as Dino Crocetti and likely knew pizza is Italian for pie. Martin didn’t write the song. Did lyricist Jack Brooks use poetic licence? Not necessarily. Pizza had arrived in the New World in tandem with pie about 25 years before, and many midcentury North Americans retained the phrase.

Even today a Google search for “pizza pie” will get 447,000 returns. Assimilation can be slow.

Restaurateurs persist in defiling their menus with such vulgarities as borscht soup, consommé soup, chili pepper and salsa sauce.

Chai tea drives me wild. For millions of tea lovers chai means tea. Chai or its cognates can be found in many African, Arabic, Asian and Slavic languages. So why do I have to see this tautology on a teahouse menu? Because the phrase has been appropriated to identify a particular liquid confection!

Commerce is often the enemy of style, and sometimes it can stop English evolution in its tracks.


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About the author

Wilf Popoff

When Wilf Popoff started editing, John Diefenbaker was prime minister, editors used pencils, and IBM mainframe computers were moving from vacuum tubes to transistors. Wilf is a former editor of Active Voice.

4 Comments on “Wasted Words: Careless Pirates”

  • Punto e virgola


    Well, ‘Torta’ is Italian for pie, so it’s not really comparable to a chai tea. Perhaps it’s rather that a familiar term was attached to an unfamiliar one to help explain a foreign dish?

  • Margaret Sadler


    I was waiting for you to refer to “chai tea”. Drives me crazy, too.
    Well said.

  • Dwain Richardson


    I find your food examples most intriguing. Who would have thought that “pizza” and “pie” or “chai” and “tea” were the same thing?! Come to think of it, you’re right to suggest that English abounds with many redundancies. Now I need to pay attention to my writing 😛

    Thanks for sharing this valuable information with us! 🙂

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