Why do most Americans only speak English? I think it’s because we don’t need to learn any other languages. English is the only language most of us will ever use to get through our day-to-day lives.
I know some Spanish and some Latin (a dead language, but hey! It counts), but I’m nowhere near fluent in either – though I’d like to be. I’ve just never had to use a language other than English to get by, so I’ve never been really forced to learn one. I think most Americans are similar. We studied a language in school, maybe even spent a month or two in a foreign country, but in the end never really “mastered” any other language.
Anyway, here are some non-English words and phrases English speakers use a lot. You might have heard some before, but it’s important to know what they really mean before you use them in anything you write – it’s easy to interpret words or phrases based on context, and forget that we don’t know their actual definition.
As always, please comment if you want to add any foreign words or phrases that I may have missed!
Hasta la vista: Spanish – usually used in place of “see you later,” but literally closer to “until the next time.”
Mano a mano: Spanish – directly or face-to-face, usually used in reference to a confrontation or conflict.
Prima donna: Italian – literally “first lady.” 1. a distinguished female operatic singer; a leading female operatic star; a diva 2. a person that’s considered vain, temperamental and/or conceited.
Alpha and Omega: Greek – “first and last” or “beginning and end.”
Hoi polloi: Greek – the common people; the masses.
Mazel Tov: Yiddish – Literally “good luck” – used to congratulate someone rather than to wish them a good outcome that hasn’t yet happened. Consider it more of a declaration that good luck has already fallen on someone and you’re congratulating them for it.
Nota bene: Italian – literally “note well.” Usually used in text, telling the reader to carefully observe what comes next.
Que sera, sera: Italian – this phrase became popular when Doris Day sang the song of the same name for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Literally, it means “what will be will be.” It translates similarly in multiple languages so the exact origin is unknown, but it’s been around for a while: I found an excerpt on the phrase from the World Heritage Encyclopedia, via gutenberg.org, which says it may have originated in either Italy, Spain or France in the 15th or 16th century.
Schadenfreude: German – comes from schaden (harm) + freude (joy). Pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.
Verboten: German – forbidden, as by law; prohibited.
Zeitgeist: German – comes from zeit (spirit) + geist (time). The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of time.