When we were first dating, my husband used complex English words, some of which I, as a native English speaker, didn’t even know.
Consider the word “ambulatory”, which means to the ability to walk about (thus not bedridden). I don’t know how ambulatory came up, but he correctly guessed the meaning at a time when I was struggling to come up with one. I think that might have been when I began to fall for the tall, smart Dutchman.
He’s a smart one, but it also has to do with the European education system and perspective. My husband attended “Gymnasium,” which is the equivalent of high school for university-bound students. Latin and Greek are part of the curriculum offered at this level, and many words in the English language have Latin or Greek roots. Due to the education he received as a teenager, he knew that the Latin word “ambulare” means “to walk or move about.” Thus ambulatory was a logical step in his reasoning. So he basically charmed me in my early thirties utilizing his high school education. (Just to clarify, he’s my same age, so this is not a cougar story of cradle robbing).
His knowledge of language also has to do with location.
Growing up in the west coast of the U.S., I could travel for two weeks straight across America and not encounter any other languages besides English and some occasional Spanish. In The Netherlands, you only need to travel for a few hours to reach another country with different laws, a different language, and it’s own set of cultural norms.
If you live in a large Dutch city, you can have this same experience walking down the street. On any given day, I can hear Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish, Iranian, French, Arabic and other languages just by the common activity of walking my child to school.
My son’s school alone is filled with students from over 40 different countries of origin, yet it is a Dutch school. The children are discouraged from speaking other languages on the playground or in the classroom. Yet all of those kids have parents, who just like me, when they come home or leave the school, most likely speak to their children in their mother tongue.
The Netherlands is a small country, and with such a diversity of cultures just past the border, or within its borders, it only makes sense that multiple language acquisition is the norm.
As a lingua franca, English has a special place in this process of language acquisition. They start teaching English as a second language in school around the age of 8 or 9 years old.
When you live abroad long enough, you tend to learn the local language. I spend a good deal of my day speaking Dutch. Although it’s exciting to be able to communicate in Dutch, it also has a downside. As my brain acquires more and more Dutch, my English is surely but slowly eroding. That’s why I seek out other native-English speaking expats. It’s also why I signed up for Miriam-Webster’s Word of The Day newsletter.
Each day, I receive a new word in my inbox with a definition, examples of usage and the history of the word. Most of the time I know the word, and get a shot of native language confidence as I say to myself “already knew that!” But this morning a word showed up that upon first encounter, made me flicker my eyebrows: Gimcrack.
Before I even opened the email, I was forming definitions in my head: Gimcrack: 1) That unfortunate view one is exposed to when a plumber bends over to fix a sink, or 2) A person at a gym doing squats and accidentally displaying a portion of their buttocks, commonly known as crack.
To my relief, both of my definitions were wrong. Here is the correct definition:
Gimcrack (pronounced Jim krak): A showy object of little use or value: gewgaw.
Say what? Gewgaw? It’s a knickknack or in other words, a kickshaw or a tchotchke. Where do we come up with all of these words?
Try using Gimcrack in a sentence. It will either impress the socks off someone or earn you a misguided punch in the arm.