May I borrow that word?

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Isn't it amazing how one pachyderm leads to another? So a colleague of mine found. We'd been working on a piece that mentioned how rhinoceroses count as pachyderms, along with hippopotamuses and, of course, elephants.

Then that weekend she entertained friends from out of town. As they trekked from Isabella Stewart Gardner's Venetian palace of an art gallery to the Museum of Fine Arts, they passed, out in front of the Museum School, a rhinoceros. Well, not an actual rhinoceros, but an artistic representation of one, in bronze.

"How do you call that?" asked one of the visiting friends, who was from out of the country. The other visitor responded in Hebrew, the language the two of them shared, and then Englished what she'd come up with as "hippopotamus."

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Hmm, no, not quite right, my colleague responded. "It's a rhinoceros."

Then there followed some Anglo-Hebrew back and forth, at the end of which it was determined that the right term in Hebrew was keren af. Which means "horn nose." Which is what the Greek roots of our English word "rhinoceros" really mean. As the Greek roots of our English word "hippopotamus" mean "river horse."

"Horn nose" and "river horse" are also the translations of the German words for the two critters: Nashorn and Flusspferd, respectively. "Rhino" and "hippo" turn out to be examples not only of pachyderms, but of "loan translations," or, as some word-lovers like to call them, "calques." (The word is related to the caulk in your bathtub and seems to be rooted in the concept of one word tracing the path of another.)

A loan translation is a word that is not borrowed in toto from another language – as English has appropriated "spaghetti," for instance, from Italian – but rather, broken down into parts, each of which is translated into the importing language. The elements are then bolted together on-site, so to speak, and voilà, a whole new term. It sounds a little complicated, but the concept is familiar to anyone who has ever watched an old cowboy movie in which the Indians talk about white men as "palefaces" who use "fire sticks" and ride the "iron horse."

German is notable for its tendency to rely on loan translations rather than simply adapting new words. Take "television," for instance. Much of the rest of the world simply calls it "television," or something very much like that. The word, from a Greek form meaning "far" and a Latin-derived word meaning "seeing," was coined in English or French in the early years of the 20th century. The Germans, however, deconstruct "television" into its parts, translate those into their native tongue ("fern," or far, plus "sehen," seeing) and come up with das Fernsehen.

So is there a connection between use of loan translations in German and Hebrew? It would seem so. During the modern revival of Hebrew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the language needed to be populated with words for modern things, loan translation was a tool used to coin new terms. After all, the Jews of Europe making their way to Palestine largely spoke Yiddish, a language very close to German, which is full of loan translations.

For instance, the modern Hebrew word for a New World food that has penetrated deeply into Old World cuisine, the potato, was apparently constructed on the model of the German Erdapfel, or "apple of the earth": tapuakh-adama, wherein "tapuakh" is "apple" and "adama" is "ground" – as in Adam, the man "formed of the dust of the ground."

This little bit of poking around has raised more questions than it has answered: For instance, what were latkes made of in the time before the European voyages of discovery half a millennium ago?

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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