verboten

I noticed the following sentence in a NYT article under the headline How an Affair Between a Reporter and a Security Aide Has Rattled Washington Media written by Michael M. Grynbaum, Scott Shane and Emily Flitter:

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a basic tenet of journalism, and intimate involvement with a source is considered verboten.

And I thought to myself that it was a bit odd to see the word verboten there. I mean, I think I understand that the writer was trying to imply not just a mild prohibition but a red-line firing offense. But to my mind verboten also connotes some criticism of the forbidding authority for its overly rigid strictness, which I don’t believe that the writers intended at all. I could be wrong about that usage, or perhaps I have an outdated sense of it.

I also found it an interesting class of words that I’d like to see some more examples of—loanwords where there is a perfectly good English word, but we often use the foreign loanword for some extra connotation. I couldn’t think of any others from the German off the top of my head, although I’m sure there are a few. What came to my mind was siesta, which doesn’t quite mean the same as nap, but pretty close. My take on these is that there isn’t necessarily a referent to the original language at all. I could certainly tell my wife that I took a siesta in the middle of the day without intending to reference the Portuguese or Spanish colonial holdings in tropical climates. Similarly, Mssrs Grynbaum, Shane and Flitter did not mean to suggest (I think) that anyone involved in the matter they are reporting was German-speaking or of German heritage. It’s an English word now, a not-quite-synonym.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no ethnic stereotyping involved. I’d hesitate (well, I did hesitate) to state that there’s no problem with no problemo, which isn’t actually Spanish at all and has an ugly history alongside its less ugly one. The use of verboten clearly trades on a stereotype of Germans, to the point that I was surprised to find that it predates WWII as an English loanword. Of course, so the stereotype also predates WWII, so there’s that.

I am, if it isn’t clear, drawing a distinction between this class of loanwords and the more general class of words such as ninja and fatwah and cachet and fjord. English sucks up words like anything, and when we need a word to describe something we aren’t afraid to use someone else’s and make it English, probably inventing some new orthography and pronunciation just for kicks. This is different: there is a perfectly good word forbidden (and lots of synonyms such as prohibited and banned and proscribed and off-limits) but we choose on occasion to use the foreign word as a foreign word instead. As someone might respond to a knock on the door by saying entrez rather than come in, I suppose, or as we give toasts in languages we don’t speak. I suppose it’s a form of foreignism, although I don’t think that’s quite correct—that’s not how it’s being used in that article, at any rate.

Thanks,
-Ed.

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