The English language is as adaptable as our culture, which is not a surprise. Language is often little more than an expression of what people need to express. We’re a borrowing people who take ideas and products from just about anywhere – and bring the words along with them. That’s probably a good thing since sometimes English takes strange turns on its own.
Coffee is something that is a big part of our world. The drink itself seems to have captured the American imagination around the time of the Civil War as a good strong and warming drink that had a lot more heft around a campfire than simple tea. It had already taken on the aura of being a “man’s drink” in places throughout Europe that had signs saying simply “Café” – nothing more than “Coffee” – which also became the first insurance houses and stock brokers. The drink itself came from Arab lands along with the word “qahweh” meaning originally “wine”. A quick trip through Turkish as “kahveh” gave us “Café” and “Coffee” by the 17th Century, although the word “java” is a bit closer to the original Arabic.
This isn’t the only word that seems entirely American to have a very distant origin, however. A “Gung Ho” Marine may be the kind of person that seems to carry the spirit of our nation on his or her shoulders, but the word itself is Chinese. Brigadier General Evans Carlson was sent to China in the late 1930s to help train and equip soldiers fighting the Japanese long before we entered the war. He wound up learning that through what he called “ethical indoctrination” that men could be made to do absolutely amazing things as a team. The phrase they used was “gung ho”, which means literally “harmonious work”. When Gen. Carlson took over the training of the 2nd Raider Battalion of the US Marines in 1942, he introduced the concept and term “Gung Ho” to his men. This Chinese word soon became the catchphrase of the entire Marine Corps.
While words and phrases that come into our language without changing much are always interesting, our own language often changes in ways that are just bizarre. I’ve said before that my favorite word in English is “awful” because it originally meant almost the exact opposite – more like “awesome”. Another word like this is “oversee” which is a near opposite of “overlook”. It’s a good word for jokes because in our Congress the most prestigious body in charge of ethics is the House Committee on Oversight – which, we can guess, is there to overlook things. No, they oversee things! Sorry about that, er, oversight.
The last word for today is a simple one – so simple that I cannot trace how or where it came from. “Fast” is a simple word that we usually use to mean “quick”. The oldest usage is nearly the opposite, as in “hold fast” or “make fast”, meaning to be tied down and not capable of moving. “Fasten” has the same root. Why do we use this word to mean “quick”? I have no idea, and I have not been able to hunt down a good explanation. If someone has one, I hope that you can leave it in the comments.
That’s why I love English – it’s very unpredictable as a language. You never know where a word has come from or what it once meant. Some things we can trace to a foreign origin that makes a lot of sense, once you know the story, but other things are just left as a legend.