‘This’ll make you laugh,’ said my husband, sounding like George V commenting on an Impressionist painting. ‘Someone in the Telegraph says that the French shouldn’t borrow English words.’
Once I had managed to wrest the paper from his dog-in-the-manger grasp, I found it didn’t quite say that, but rather that foreigners ought not to plaster advertisements and clothing with English words if they didn’t know their meaning. I had been thinking something similar.
The example that had been annoying me was the name of a medium-trendy Spanish clothing chain, Pull & Bear, which has been spreading over Spain like Chalara fraxinea in England. At first I thought it was meant to be a pair of invented surnames. Then I wondered whether it had been influenced by the French word pull, which means ‘sweater’, being an abbreviation of the loan-word ‘pullover’. The Spanish too have borrowed pullover, but they have had difficulties with its spelling. First they made the double-l single, because it would otherwise sound more like the letter y. Then they decided to accent it on the middle syllable: pulóver. Having thoroughly domesticated it, they formed a plural: pulóveres. In any case, they have another perfectly good loan word, suéter, pronounced like sweater but a little more prissily if taken in isolation.
On making enquiries, however, I found that Spanish people thought that Pull & Bear might be some English phrase. I also found that English people thought it might be a calque from a Spanish phrase, in other words an idiom translated word for word, as if croûte superieure, rather than le gratin, were the French for ‘upper crust’.
Some Spaniards think that Pull & Bear is a standard English reference to tug-of-war. In Spanish the game is called tirar de la cuerda, I think. Other Spaniards take it for an English term meaning ‘take and carry’ as if it were a variant of prêt-à-porter. Many Spaniards pronounce the Bear part as if it were beer. Quite a few, though, are aware that bear means a furry creature, in Spanish oso or osito (‘teddy bear’). Altogether, its meaninglessness is the epitome of style over content.
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