The Extended Meanings of Words
I was in Bordeaux a week ago, talking with a friend of mine, who loves lists. She makes lists about different funny things, but one that struck me, and which I might actually start on my own, was her list of words that "fit" in a language, better than in another, or that, on the contrary, just don't fit at all. She speaks Italian, Spanish, English and French (she's a native French speaker) and so we toyed with a few words and argued about them.
She started with a word I didn't know, the word for pollution in Italian. The word is inquinamento. To her, that word was much stronger than the French (or English for that matter) pollution. It has this kind of sticky ring to it, which evokes something crawling under your skin. I looked up the etymology of it, which refers to "stink" (puzzare) and "putrefaction" (putrefazione) in its indo-European roots. I must say that although I do not fully grasp the word, I can relate to the feeling by hearing it.
We then went on to the Spanish for pregnant, which is embarazada. I have to say that this is one of the most common faux-amis (false friends) for French speakers (I guess it works in English too). You find yourself embarrassed and end up ... pregnant, by using the wrong words. My friend thought the use of the word could be seen as a good illustration of women's condition in society, ie. they feel embarrassed (not at ease) because they're pregnant. Looking up the etymology brings interesting things. The Spanish word as well as the French word ''embarrasser'' seem to be derived from the same root, but have evolved differently. Embarazo in Spanish is really pregnancy, that's all. The interesting thing here is that one language actually taints the other, I suppose that Spanish speakers don't ever think of embarrassment when they use the word embarazada.
I found this to be the most interesting example. Because we speak another language, which may or may not share roots with the language we learn, some words simply take on much more (or many more) meaning(s) than they really have. Looking back, I realise it is simply impossible not to taint some of the words with those you already know. Which sometimes means that you have trouble using a perfectly harmless word because it just rings different bells in your own language. One good example in my everyday life is the word groß (pronounced gross and which means tall). In French, gros means fat. So it's always really strange for me to tell someone they are tall, because I always have second thoughts about the fact that I might just have called them fat. I guess that works in English too... Calling someone gross is not exactly very nice!