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What are the criteria to adopt new words into English?

There are many words or phrases in English that are clearly of foreign origin yet become so commonplace they are indiscernible from the rest of English and make their way into English dictionaries.

Examples include deja vu, carpe diem, kosher and rendezvous.

However, there are plenty of foreign-language phrases, such as c'est la vie and hasta la vista that are used in English and will probably not appear in an English dictionary or be considered English.

So, how and when does a foreign word or phrase become adopted as English and how and when does it remain foreign?

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    Thanks to having watched Stephen Fry on an old re-run of QI last night, I can report that English uses several "French" expressions which are in fact bordering on meaningless to the French themselves. They say "double entente" (double meaning), not double-entendre. And after the opera they shout "bis" rather than "encore". So are these usages still "foreign" once they're lost to the original mother-country? Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 13:10
  • I wonder if it's actually true that "carpe diem", "déjà vu" and "rendezvous" don't sound 'foreign' to at least some speakers. Can you cite any study giving evidence either way? Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 14:52
  • P.S. Why do you not expect "c'est la vie" and "hasta la vista" to appear in an English dictionary? I would expect that they would be included provided the dictionary was generally comprehensive enough. Incidentally, "hasta la vista" could be an example of the phenomenon FumbleFingers mentions of a supposedly foreign phrase that actually turns out not to be used (or to be barely used) in the "original" language. Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 15:04

2 Answers 2


Words of this nature that are borrowed from other languages are called Inkhorn terms, and was widespread during the mid-16th to the mid-17th century, during the transition from Middle English to Modern English. According to the wiki article, new words were being introduced into the language by writers, often self-consciously borrowing from Classical literature. Critics regarded these words as useless, usually requiring knowledge of Latin or Greek to be understood. They also contended that there were words with identical meaning already in English. Some of the terms introduced, however, filled a semantic gap in English (often technical and scientific words), whereas others coexisted with native (Germanic) words with the same or similar meanings, and often supplanted them. This would explain words like rendezvous.

Another possible explanation (in sociolinguistic circles) for the introduction of loaned terms into a language is prestige, which describes the level of respect accorded to a language or dialect as compared to that of other languages or dialects in a speech community. According to the wiki article, the concept of prestige is closely related to the idea of the standard language, in that the most prestigious dialect is likely to be considered the standard language, though there are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as Arabic. It goes on to say that prestige is particularly visible in situations where two or more languages come in contact, and in diverse, socially stratified urban environments, in which there are likely to be speakers of different languages or dialects interacting frequently. This would probably explain expressions like hasta la vista.

  • Great information. Still not sure though of how to define what words are considered english and what words are considered borrowed.
    – Mark
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 12:32
  • @Mark - I am not sure, either, but hopefully the wiki links should provide you with further information, or at least where else to look.
    – Bill
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 12:38
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    Mark-- beyond obvious examples, how exactly you define a word as "foreign" is really arbitrary. The majority of words in the English language were actually loans from other languages (principally French) at one time or other, but we don't think that we speak a foreign language. So you could decide that it ultimately depends on, at a given moment, what words speakers on average perceive to be foreign (e.g. you could survey 1000 people and see which words more than 50% perceive as foreign)... Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 15:08
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    ...you could also look for words that defy the usual phonotactics of English (e.g. "double-entendre" arguably does, at least if not pronounced with a schwa at the end, because "dr" isn't a normal syllable coda in English). This still has the problem that there are some similarities between the phonotactics of different languages (Romance languages are somewhat similar to English as it turns out), so a large number of foreign words may not be detected from their phonotactics. Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 15:10

A word does not have to be in an English dictionary to be considered English. Apart from common words, it is up to the lexicographers' discretion as to what belongs in a dictionary and what doesn't. There are many low-frequency words that may take several decades to be main-stream enough to be considered (by lexicographers). It's easy to pick examples from various domains. From the internet, we have "online", "email", "blog", "login", etc. From electronics, we have "permittivity", "dielectric", etc.

Having said that, coming to the examples you mentioned, "deja vu" and "kosher" have no equivalents that are "more English". Such words are more readily absorbed into English. Words that originate from religion and culture ("kosher") are assimilated most easily because they refer to unique concepts.

"Hasta la vista": I'm not from the US, and so, not all that used to Spanish phrases. I heard it for the first time only in Terminator 2. "See you later" suited my needs just fine.

"c'est la vie": There are enough equivalents that are "more English": "such is life" or "life's like that" or "that's the way the cookie crumbles" and so on.

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    I appreciate your input prash but there are also alternatives to "carpe diem" - "sieze the day," and "rendezvous" - meet up. It doesn't seem to me that it's just a matter of lack of alternatives. There must be endless phrases that can be culled from other languages to fill a language gap in English but aren't. Additionally, while you may be right about lexicographers not being the final authority as to what constitutes English, what alternative is there? Native speakers, like myself, use all of the above phrases & yet seem to understand (maybe) which are considered English and which aren't.
    – Mark
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 10:33
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    @Mark: Alternative to lexicographers' opinions? I prefer a fuzzy approach, and so there is (for me) no clear line that separates words that are considered to be English, and those that are not. For me, it's just a question of whether my intended audience will understand a word or phrase. About "carpe diem" and "rendezvous"... there was a time when many educated people of England were trilingual (French and Latin). Even Newton wrote his major works in Latin. I suppose people borrowed phrases from these languages to show off how cultured they were.
    – prash
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 12:33

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