Of course, as English speakers, we could have plumped for Ohrwurm (“awe-verm”), but most languages take the calque option when “borrowing” words. French for example gave us Adam’s apple – or pomme d’Adam to be exact. The phrase evokes a lump of forbidden fruit stuck in the trachea. Again, we loved the notion, the imagery, but the original French stuck in our own throats, so we baptised the bump as Adam’s apple, in the calque tradition.
Calque itself derives from French as well, where calquer means to imitate. (Papier calque is tracing paper.) Every language does it, tweaking an import to suit the recipient’s grammar and glossary. Skyscraper has been deftly calqued across the planet, from Dutch (wolkenkrabber – clouds-scratcher) to Bengali (gagan-chumbi, or sky-kisser).
But getting back to earworm, the vile nematode is not the only English word turning 50 this year. Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor from Tokyo, flinched when facing humanoid androids. The machines seemed like us, but weren’t. They looked like us, but not quite. He came to know his qualm as bukimi no tani gensho – or creepy gulch phenomenon.
My daughter once had a doll called Bella that seemed too babylike, but she loved it, and the rest of us learnt to leap across Mori’s uncanny valley. Reasons for this unease range from a thing called mortality salience (sensing one’s own redundancy in meeting a perceived rival) to the wonderful paradox of the heap.
Picture a heap of sand. Now imagine someone stealing a few grains every time you turn your back. At what point does Pile A become Pile B? When does a baby start seeming a doll or vice versa? Those questions are the peas beneath the cognitive mattress.
Quality time had its debut some 50 years ago, along with mind-map and the war on drugs. (Guess who’s winning that showdown?) Another newbie came via US civil-rights activist Ralph Nader, who wanted to lend a positive spin to workplace informers. Nader rejected such labels as snitch or stool pigeon, anointing a term that elicited the old-style constable turning into whistle-blower.
Meantime shortoosies fumbled for a catchier name in 1970, the skin-tight dacks needing a zeitgeist label to kick-start their arrival. Ateliers across New York tried to christen these skimpy pants, dreaming up the likes of booty shorts, or shortcuts, until hot pants won the day – the bum wrap to outlast its initial bum rap.
Hot pants won the day – the bum wrap to outlast its initial bum rap.
Eurocentric. Meme. Epidural. There are plenty of words to salute at this 50ish party, toasting the gang with Harvey Wallbangers, the Galliano cocktail of matching vintage, and maybe a burst of “alternative music” as well. What say we give the birthday gang three cheers? Hip-hip-pa-rum! Hip-hip-pa-rum! Damn.