Japan Currents, November, 1997

What's in a Word?

Word Geography

"French, Italian, Russian...?"

The waitress was waiting for me to finish my order, but my mind began to wander... What other kinds of foods do we identify by the name of a country, like these salad dressings? Let's see... breads and cakes. There's French bread, Italian bread... (and in Hawaii there was Portuguese sweet bread...) and of course there's French and Danish pastry, French crullers, French rolls, and French toast, Dutch apple pie, Belgian waffles... hmm, is that a bread? Oh, and English muffins, that's a good one...

"Will that be French, Italian, or Russian sir?"

She was getting impatient with my daydreaming. "Sorry. Italian, please."

I went back to my game. Drinks. There's Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskey, Jamaican rum, Cuba libre, Japanese and Chinese tea, Turkish and Irish coffee... Meat dishes? Canadian bacon, Hungarian goulash, Irish stew, Scotch broth, Italian sausage, Swedish meatballs, Swiss steak, French dip... (and in Provincetown we had Portuguese sausage and Portuguese bean soup...) Welsh rabbit but that's a cheese dish, isn't it? Hmm, cheese... Swiss cheese, American cheese... Eventually I got to Spanish rice, German potato salad, French and Spanish omelets, Italian ices, French ice cream, French fries, Greek olives and Turkish taffy... and then the meal started to arrive. I had really worked up an appetite!

Of course there are hundreds of English words which use country names outside of the area of foods. It's not too difficult, for example, to play the game with breeds of dogs: Afghan hound, American pit bull terrier, Australian kelpie, Belgian sheep dog, Chinese Shar-Pei, English springer spaniel, French bulldog, German shepherd, Hungarian pointer, Irish setter, Italian greyhound, Japanese Chin, Maltese, Mexican hairless, Norwegian elkhound, Portuguese water dog, Russian wolfhound, Scottish terrier, Welsh corgi.

Plants and trees are good candidates as well: American elm, Arabian coffee, Australian pine, Belgian endive, Bermuda onion, Brazilian rosewood, Canada balsam, Chinese cabbage, Egyptian cotton, English ivy, French endive, Indian almond, Irish potato, Japanese maple, Java fig, Korean lawn grass, Mexican jumping bean, Norway spruce, Persian melon, Philippine mahogany, Spanish moss, Turkish tobacco.

But in many ways the most interesting examples show up in idioms. English-Dutch rivalry in the 18th century resulted in a number of English compounds for putting down the Dutch, like Dutch treat (for a paying your own way), a Dutch uncle (someone very critical of others), Dutch courage (induced by alcohol), Dutch reckoning (guesswork), or Dutch defense (surrender). Russian roulette may have been 'played' in the czarist armies, but it's at least equally likely to have resulted from the kind of fatalism sometimes attributed to Russians. French leave, which now has the sense of AWOL, being away from a military post without permission, actually goes back to 17th century France, where leaving a party early without a formal good-bye to the host was acceptable practice, though frowned upon by the British. A Scotch verdict is the verdict of "not proven," an alternative provided by Scotch law between 'guilty' and 'not guilty.' A Mexican stand-off is simply a standoff, a draw, but may result from derogatory American attitudes towards their southern neighbor. Another Americanism gone out of fashion is Irish bull, for a kind of statement that at first seems to make sense, but turns out to contradict itself "He's the kind of guy who looks you right in the eye as he stabs you in the back." A Chinese fire drill, a disorganized, chaotic condition, seems another case of an American put-down. But Siamese twins originally referred to an actual pair of such twins, congenitally joined at the chest in the early 19th century, and has since become generalized to describe any such twins joined at birth.

And even with all these examples, a number one candidate for a country name which has become a part of English words doesn't appear in the above lists. The 'country' itself doesn't even exist anymore, but the influence of the Roman Empire on European languages is as active as ever. We can think of it as the source for Romance languages, the Roman alphabet, romaji, romantic fiction, the Romance Car, roman à clef, Roman holiday, Roman candle, Roman nose, Roman calendar, Roman numerals, Romanesque architecture, the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman arch, Roman collar, etc., etc. The list of English words derived from Roma, the capital of the ancient Roman Empire appears longer than that for any country.

How many more can you think of?

Stephen Trussel