Hitting the right register

Dutch is rich in synonyms, often one with a Germanic and one with a Latinate root. Authors with that mother tongue are well aware that the overtones and nuances of usage aren’t quite identical, but don’t always consider that the same issue plays in English, where the choice is often one long word or several everyday ones.

Here’s a nice example the other way round: because he was brought up in a bilingual environment, our son would sometimes dutchify or anglicize words when he was very small and come up with eyebrow-raising words like explosie for “explosion” – perfectly correct, but no three-year-old would ever say it (the normal Dutch word is ontploffing). Get the picture?
Real examples:

  • always using “cooperate” even when “work together” is more natural. (Worth a post in its own right, that one.)
  • “tumescent” instead of “expanding” for fire safety foam strips
  • “ingress” instead of “way in” on a door
  • or going the other way, referring to the “urge to pee” instead of urinate in a medical manual
  • and some can sound very odd, such as a “groin rupture” instead of an inguinal hernia in a medical insurance report

It’s also interesting to note that translating the Latin roots quite often gives the correct Dutch: drukken => press, onderdrukken = under => suppress, indrukken = inwards => impress, uitdrukken = out => express, samendrukken = together => compress. Doesn’t work for “empress” though…

Prevalence: high. When there’s a viable translation that only involves changing the word ending, it’s the easy option.
Frequency: high. Both ways round: complex words in texts that are meant to be spoken, supposedly accessible websites or texts for children, and kiddie speech in medical documents, technical manuals and so forth.
Native: no. Other than in clunky or hurried translations.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “Hitting the right register

  1. Not directly related but on the medical front, English has some unusual medical terms, at least to my Dutch ears. e.g. “micturition” where I would have expected miction (mictie, the act of urinating) and “verruca” which in medical Dutch is any wart, but in English seems to be reserved for a plantar wart (i.e. on the sole of the foot).


    1. Whereas I find it weird because the verb is “micturate”, so you’d expect “micturation”…

      A “hernia” is a good one too: outside medical circles, a hernia in English is the inguinal type and nothing to do with slipped discs.


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