World of Words

A study from Jules Verne about some of the foreign words we use and our understanding of their meaning and where they come from.

September 2018 • Jules Verne

Did you know…?

We tend to take for granted the language we use on a day-to-day basis, don’t we? It’s only really when we go abroad, or encounter somebody who isn’t as fluent as we are, that we’re truly confronted with the reality of how important and peculiar the concept of language can be.

Based on a survey of 2,000 members of the British public, we know that 10% of Brits are speaking at least 12 languages every day, and the most influential languages on the words we most commonly use are: Greek, Japanese, Indian, Italian, French and Chinese.

Amongst those, shampoo and ketchup are the most commonly used foreign words in the English language, with 15% assuming the latter is of European origin, when it is in fact a Chinese word.

Our entomology-based confusion doesn’t stop there though, with over a third of Brits unaware that the word entrepreneur comes from French. While the same number are under the impression cookie is of English origin, when in reality it’s Dutch.

 

Amongst those, shampoo and ketchup are the most commonly used foreign words in the English language, with 15% assuming the latter is of European origin, when it is in fact a Chinese word.

Our entomology-based confusion doesn’t stop there though, with over a third of Brits unaware that the word entrepreneur comes from French. While the same number are under the impression cookie is of English origin, when in reality it’s Dutch.

Where you are

This gets all the more interesting when you start breaking down how we speak in different areas of the United Kingdom, too.

Up in Scotland, for example, 27% are using at least two Greek words a week. While in Wales, that’s true of 51% of them where Arabic is concerned.

It should come as no surprise either that down in the leafy south-west of England, 29% of people are speaking at least two French words a week.

City social

Getting even more granular, a city-by-city dissection reveals its own unique set of curiosities.

Amongst those from Birmingham, bizarrely, 12% think a patio is a frog – that’s not a typo! – and 7% of them don’t even know what one is.

Not alone in their confusion, 10% of our Mancunian friends have mistaken a tsunami for a type of jewel, while 6% of folk down in the capital believe anonymous to mean foreign.

Despite being home to one of the biggest arts festivals in the world, there are still 10% of those in Edinburgh who believe loot is a type of instrument – that would be lute, everybody!

Over in Hampshire, 12% of people believe metropolis is a type of foreign police.

 

It’s an age thing

When we take a look at age, that presents its own very special picture of how different generations understand language. At the youngest end of the scale, 15% of 18 to 24-year-olds think a utensil is a seashell, and 20% believe the word moped refers to a type of material.

Those supposedly in their prime between the ages of 25 to 34-years-old have their own patio related issues, with 5% not knowing what one is, with 6% of 45 to 54-year-olds joining them by being unaware of what a guru is.

Interestingly, when grouped together overall, 18 to 24-year-olds were 15% more likely to get the definition of words wrong when compared against over 45s, which gives the older generation something else to hold over those younger than them.

Battle of the sexes

Not wanting to spark a war of the sexes, but like in most things, we tend to differ when split down gender lines.

Taking the word tsunami, for example, 40% of women know the origin, compared to 59% of men. Performing similarly well where metropolis is concerned, 43% of men know its origin, while just 35% of women share that knowledge. Finally, and completing the clean sweep, 57% of women know the origin of the word paparazzi, with 67% of men aware of its etymology in comparison.

Overall then, with men more likely to know the origins of foreign words more than their female counterparts, this appears to be one of the increasingly few areas where males can confidently claim the bragging rights.

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