Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Sparrow: Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases

The Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases by Martin H. Manser
(Checkmark Books, 2002)

Have you ever been at a loss to find the mot juste when writing? The je ne sais quoi that will elevate your prose from common to cultivated? Do you simply enjoy being a pompous ass with a veneer of erudition? Then, you need The Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, mon ami.

I love this handy little volume. It works not only as a quick reference book in the heat of creative expression, but also as an enjoyable sit-down read. It is hugely diverting to find that jeunesse dorée refers to "the wealthy, sophisticated and fashionable young; originally applied to the wealthy, young counterrevolutionaries who combined to bring Robespierre's Reign of Terror to an end in France;" and then reflect on who might fit that bill today in America. Who will bring our current Reign of (Economic) Terror to an end in this century? Mental exercises such as these abound when reading Foreign Words and Phrases.

Most of the words and phrases in this book are French or Latin. While that is not surprising, what may be is that so many more familiar words whose origins I have never stopped to consider have rather exotic roots. Did you know that juggernaut is Hindi? Or that kismet is Turkish? Or that spritzer is German?

My only reservation about this book is that it lacks an easy index to help you find that mot juste. You almost have to know what foreign word you are seeking to make the book work for you. At least, that is the way it is in my edition; perhaps this has been remedied in later editions.

If you are a writer of any sort, or a simply an omnivorous logophile, you really ought not to go any longer without this invaluable resource. Go on, give yourself un bon cadeau!

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