A certain je ne sais quoi which makes English such a creative and challenging language is its sponge-like ability to absorb and use words and phrases from other languages as if they’ve always been there.
We regularly use nouns from other languages to improve the image of the same items in our product or services offerings. Pomme de terre frites, (or simply pomme frites) appears on fancy menus instead of French fries. Grande and Vente make our cappuccinos and caffè Americanos taste far better (and cost more) than simple big cups of coffee.
Atelier (a workshop or studio) is a popular addition to the store names of artists, or specialty shops or boutiques (to use one French word to describe another French word 😉 wink).
We use abbreviations such as R.S.V.P. instead of spelling out répondez s’il vous plaît, when please respond is just as succinct and stalwart.
When applying for a job we’ll prepare a summary of our accomplishments and call it a résumé, unless it is a job in academia, in which case that summary might be called curriculum vitae.
Our business plan financials are often labeled pro forma (in advance, or as a matter of form).
Your physician’s protégé may give you a pro bono prognosis and prescribe a placebo and wish you prosit. Geshundheit!
Can you tell the difference between ad lib., au-h2o, ca., circ., ebit, e.g., et al., etc., i.e., ibid., lsmft, v., vs., viz, v.s. or v.v.? Can you spell out all these abbreviations?
It is so easy for us to read over, past or through these foreign words that are emigrating into English. Many times we simply make a guess on the meaning, based on the context of the sentence, because we are too busy, or too lazy, to look them up. But then many of us compound the error. We incorporate them into our own writing, still without knowing what we are actually saying.
So, what can you do? Obviously the first thing to do is use your dictionary. There is the old standby, the printed book (our Documentation team has six different editions from different publishers). There are plenty of online dictionaries as well. Google or Yahoo! search and you get a plethora of links. Bookmark your favorites and return to them often.
And, here are two good reference books I’ll recommend to you.
Latin for the Illiterati: Exorcizing the Ghosts of a Dead Language by Jon R Stone. Over 5,000 entries of Latin words and phrases that turn up regularly in modern English.
Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases edited by Jennifer Speake. Covers 8,000 words and phrases from over 40 languages.
Give your writing that certain indefinable quality (je ne sais quoi) of worldliness when you drop in phrases from other languages. No faux pas.