English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘kaput’ a loanword?

Q: Is there a better expression than “loan word” to describe “kaput”? I’d say “restaurant” is certainly now an English word on loan from French, but “kaput” seems in a different class—a German word in international use, like “schadenfreude.”

A: We’ve occasionally used “loanword” (standard dictionaries generally run it together) to mean an English word adopted more or less intact from another language. We’ve also used “adoption” several times.

But the noun we use the most for such a term is “borrowing.” The verb “borrow” and its derivatives have been used figuratively in this sense for hundreds of years, as we note in a 2008 post.

We don’t know a better term than “borrowing,” “adoption,” or “loanword” for a word, like “kaput,” that hasn’t quite lost its foreign-ness but is found in standard English dictionaries. However, the linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo have suggested a possibility.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.), Pyles and Algeo divide these borrowings into “popular loanwords” and “learned loanwords.”

Popular loanwords are of oral transmission and are part of the vocabulary of everyday communication,” they write, adding: “For the most part they are not felt to be any different from English words; in fact, those who use them are seldom aware that they are of foreign origin.”

Learned loanwords, on the other hand, may in time become part of the living vocabulary, even though their use may be confined to a certain class or group,” Pyles and Algeo say.

We think “kaput” falls more into the first category than the second, though you seem to disagree with us.

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, for example, finds “kaput” in such diverse media as People magazine, Mother Earth, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, Cosmopolitan, Skiing magazine, the Washington Post, the Antioch Review, CNN, FOX, ABC, and NPR.

Some English dictionaries include the variant “kaputt,” the spelling of the original German word, which means broken, ruined, or done for. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it as slang, but most standard dictionaries consider the word informal.

When the word entered English in the late 19th century, it meant “finished, worn out; dead or destroyed,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Alps From End to End, an 1895 book by Sir William Martin Conway that combines English and German: “The thing would then go wie’s Donnerwetter [like a thunderstorm] and the man would be kaput at once.”

The next Oxford example, which uses the word in the sense of “rendered useless or unable to function,” is from the Dec. 11, 1924, issue of the Glasgow Herald: “The intellectual consciousness is kaput.”

Interestingly, the German kaputt is itself a loan word, or borrowing, from French, though it lost something in translation.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, the German word “was probably abstracted from the earlier phrase capot machen, a partial translation by false interpretation of faire in the French faire capot be defeated.” (The French phrase refers to being without tricks—that is, defeated—in the card game piquet.)

By the way, the English term “loanword” is a borrowing of another sort, a “loan translation,” which Pyles and Algeo define as “an expression made by combining forms that individually translate the parts of a foreign combination.” In this case, “loanword” is a translation of the German lehnwort.

English has many loan translations, especially from French, such as “marriage of convenience” (mariage de convenance), “trial balloon” (ballon d’essai), and “that goes without saying” (ça va sans dire).

“Such forms are a kind of calque,” Pyles and Algeo write, using another term in linguistics for a loan translation.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.