Italics and old dictionaries….

I was about to write a witty post about that really irritating phrase “pushing the envelope” when my eyes drifted up the column in the dictionary to entrepreneur. It was in italics because it was foreign, exactly the same as its gallic neighbour entre nous. So I flicked back through the dictionary. It’s a rather old one that is used as much for door-stopping as it is for reference. It was a revised 5th edition from 1960.

What surprised me was that I don’t think that I have ever seen entrepreneur in italics before. Some time between 1960 and my terrifying emergence into basic literacy it must have acquired British nationality and therefore shed the italics that we use for mots etrangers.

It’s strange the amount of time this process takes. The italics, I feel, ask of the reader that he assume the accent of the foreign language, which is reasonably easy for French but an awful lot more perplexing when with a word like smorgasbord or fakir (despite many attempts I have never been able to pronounce a single Scandinavian vowel, instead I just sound like an excited sealion). It’s even odder when you read an old book that needed to italicise a word with which we are all now familiar. I was once reading a novel from the first half of the twentieth century which said something along the lines of “The spaghetti that they ate was delicious”, which made me try to mentally repatriate the word.

Schadenfreude currently seems to have dual nationality, but is almost a full citizen. A brief google shows that nobody is quite sure on the subject (in the same way nobody seems sure whether to capitalise g/Google). I found italicised and unitalicised examples in all four of the broadsheets.

I’ve often heard it said that schadenfreude is a German word because it is a peculiarly German emotion, in the same way that Eskimos are often said to have a whole drift of words for snow. But this doesn’t seem to take account of our very own gloating and smirking, verbs almost always performed at the expense of others.

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