Time To Retire These Imported Words — But How To Replace Them?

American Scholar magazine is looking for English versions of foreign words that we resort to using frequently — like mensch and schadenfreude. Robert Siegel talks with Ralph Keyes about the suggestions that readers have contributed.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you think that nothings adds panache or gusto or some je ne sais quoi to your writing or speech like soupcon of another language, then this next item may not be your cup of chai.

Ralph Keyes, who writes about words for The American Scholar magazine, has run a contest. He asked his readers to create English words to replace certain foreignisms that, as he wrote, tend not be used at all outside urban centers and cultural oases.

Keyes nominated four words for retirement from American usage: mensch, frisson, schadenfreude and sympathique or simpatico, depending on how pseudo-Gallic or pseudo-Hispanic you want to be.

Ralph Keyes, welcome to the program.

RALPH KEYES: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: All right. Let's hear about the words that you've proposed for elimination and some of the more interesting finalists to Americanize them. And let's start with a word central to my lifelong sense of virtuous behavior, mensch.

KEYES: Mensch proved to be tough. Somehow just capturing the warmth and the amiability, but the upstanding quality of a mensch in Yiddish proved to hard. So I went with what a couple of people proposed, which was names of existing people: a Mandela or a Truman. Now, the person proposed Truman as a portmanteau or a fusion of true and man, but it also has the advantage of being the name of our menschy 33rd president, Harry S. Truman.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: OK.

KEYES: He's a real Truman, or she's a real Mandela.

SIEGEL: Next right up for demolition is a word I don't use a lot, frisson.

KEYES: We got spine-tinglet or just plain tinglet, but I went with zing. I like the simplicity, the directness. We all get that, to say nothing of which there was a song in 1934, "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart."

SIEGEL: "Frisson Went the Strings of My Heart" would be the other version, I guess. Zing.

The next one is a German word, schadenfreude, whose virtue is that it has the benefit of implying that people who speak another language actually feel this sort of thing.

KEYES: Yes. Well, who doesn't feel this sort of thing? Politico recently coined Rom-denfreude for backers of Mitt Romney who were enjoying Chris Christie's travail. But as far as the general term schadenfreude, my favorite was sad and joy. I thought this was a very nice suggestion because it captures not only the guilty pleasure of enjoying somebody else's misfortune but the mixed feelings that we experience, the sad and joy.

SIEGEL: And lastly, either sympathique or simpatico.

KEYES: I kind of went like the slang suggestion doughnuts.

SIEGEL: Doughnuts?

KEYES: Doughnuts for the kind of warm, sweet feeling that simpatico suggests. So you might say that person's really doughnuts, in a slangy way.

SIEGEL: Well, we'll see if any of these catch on.

KEYES: Well, and the contest is still open. And if we get some more and some better submissions, who knows, one of them might suit to the top.

SIEGEL: Ralph Keyes writes about words for The American Scholar. Can I just call you a word guru?

KEYES: Fair enough.

SIEGEL: And thank you for talking with us.

KEYES: Or a wordy.

SIEGEL: A wordy. OK.

KEYES: A wordy.

SIEGEL: Thanks for talking with us about the search for some new American words that might lay to rest some old borrowed ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LISTEN, DARLING")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Zing went the strings of my heart.

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