Dépaysement

Thank God for words like dépaysement. There’s nothing more [uncoined cognate adjective] to a language than words which don’t really belong. We refer to these words as ‘loanwords’, which is a bit doltish. On loan until when? It seems to me that no loanwords have ever been returned to their owner. Despite their half-baked name, loanwords are extremely useful. They force a language to look at itself in the mirror and say, I am this or that, but I can be anything. The loanword is the expression of a language’s own dépaysement, its sense of not being at home, the trepidation of being there yet not belonging, the giddiness of foreigness, the excitement of adventure. Familiar yet alien, a drop of déjà-vu in an ocean of oddity.

To experience dépaysement is to draw the contours of one’s own world and to realise that the edges are porous. We have developed skills to help us ‘get used to’ previously unencountered things, new challenges, etc, but, really, the only required skill is a honing of our sense of awe. Dépaysement urges us to leave ourselves behind and to look ahead at the unknown scenery. The closest English ever comes to rendering dépaysement is disorientation. But this is a nervous gloss, the acknowledgment of crossing into discomfort zone. Where’s the sense of wonder in that?

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