One of the best things about foreigners is that they allow us to see ourselves in an entertaining and instructive new light. I once visited some Germans who had a guide for prospective visitors to America. This included a warning about the confusing money (it’s all the same size, so you might give someone a large bill without realizing it) and confirmation that rumors of the so-called “doggy bag” really are true—if you don’t eat all your food at a restaurant, they will let you take the rest home!Restaurants can also present thorny social problems; for example the waiter may introduce himself/herself, but you are not expected to reciprocate. I can just see it: “Hi, I’m Amber and I’ll be your server tonight.” “Oh, good evening, I am Bodo, this is my wife Irmgard, and here are little Hans-Dietrich and Anne-Sophie.”
Whole books, of course, are based on the idea of, as Leopold Bloom would say, seeing ourselves as others see us (Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters comes to mind, and this trope plays a large role in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah)., but on a much smaller scale I am fascinated by the role that English words and phrases play in other languages, often carrying a significance that comes as much from their simply being English as from their denotation. The Japanese show a special flair for this kind of thing—who can say what inspired the restaurant name “GOD hamburger”? My sister saw on the street in Japan a prim middle-schooler wearing a t-shirt with the proud slogan “Motherfucker.”
Anyone’s native language is in itself a colorless, odorless medium, since the universe ‘naturally’ expresses itself through it. So it is a bit disorienting, as well as amusing, to see the tang that English (especially American English) has when embedded in, say, Italian. These linguistic fragments can be used to assemble a little funhouse-mirror version of our culture, providing an entertaining distraction from an otherwise tedious novel such as Piero Tandelli’s Rimini. We are introduced to Marco Bauer, an on-the-make young journalist whose big Milan paper has posted him to the beach town of Rimini to head its summer-vacation section (essentially all Italians take their vacation in August, and about 80% of them seem to go to the beach).
The Rimini bureau has, of course, a hot young babe reporter, rich and uppity; she and Marco snipe and quarrel and then (of course) he says “Let’s go back to my place and have sex. I know we’ve both wanted this for a long time.” And of course that’s what they do—I would bet that Italian has since borrowed the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ from English, but this is 1983. Anyway, I tried to man up and keep reading, but when Marco approvingly compares his new gf’s pubic hair to the tentacles of a carnivorous plant…
So, la la la, I’m just over here collecting English lona words. As a suave modern guy, Marco naturally drops quite a few on us: to celebrate his promotion, he heads to “lo Yellow Bar” why yellow, Dio lo sa) for some cocktails or long drinks served up by his buddy the barman (I think that for proper effect all these should be rendered in an Italian version of Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy looking for American foxes” voice). He relaxes with some tennis or squash, and when a song runs through his head, it’s un blues, while teenagers may listen to rock or even do some breaking (remember, it’s 1983).
You may be surprised to learn that, in addition to pop culture, English dominates the sphere of the sexy. I was initially puzzled by a plan to have dinner at 9:00, then the discoteca at midnight and head al nightclub at 3:00 AM. Isn’t a disco a nightclub? The difference becomes clear when someone says “Yes, lo striptease was your idea.” It is the addition of strippers that necessitates the English word. When Marco, for strictly professional reasons, visits a nude beach, he heads over to a section marked ONLY GAY. There is something charming in the butchered language of the sign; this is something that must be said in English even though neither the writer (obviously) nor most of the intended readers actually speak English, and even though I don’t imagine such a sign would be at all likely in an English-speaking country (correct me if I’m wrong, but around here I think gay nude beaches tend to lack formal signage). When he wants to talk about carnivorous plants, though, Marco sticks to Italian.
Another slightly skewed import is flirt, which seems to mean ‘affair (“When did the flirt begin?”). To make an import sound even more English, you can add “-ing,” as in il lifting, facelift.
English loans can crop up even in spheres like fashion and cinema where the Italians have their own proud tradition (and is not sex such a sphere? You may ask). There are buyers, budgets, and talent scouts—perhaps the commercial aspects of these fields seem especially American, just as the sexy vocab leans toward the public and commercial.
And naturally, just as we have borrowed samovar and suttee, there are loan-words that refer to cultural practices foreign to Italy, such as chewing gum (Umberto Eco somewhere dismisses some oddity of American culture by writing “What do you expect from a country where adults chew gum?”). There is also la babysitter, which I had never thought of as a peculiarly American institution. But I suppose that this was always the job of la nonna (Grandma) in a country where children seldom moved to a different city, and often lived in the same house as their parents.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it reflects a time (30 years ago) when the influence of global English was less pervasive. In Swept Away, when Communist sailor dude comes upon a little cave on the desert island containing a crucifix and a bottle of Coke, he notes bitterly that you can never escape capitalism and the Church. Today, he could probably add the English language.