Friday, 14 May 2010

Emilio Lorenzo 1918-2002

As one of the "numbered academics" of the Real Academía Española, Emilio Lorenzo spent the last quarter of his 84 years as one of the chief custodians of the "purity and elegance of the Castilian language", whilst championing correct English in Spain. Founded in 1713, the academy has only 46 members of his exalted rank, designated not by numbers but by letters of the Spanish alphabet.
Born in the tiny village of Puerto Seguro, Salamanca, Lorenzo was 18 when the Civil War erupted. While he was conscripted into Franco’s army, his father was far away defending the doomed republic. The two were reunited after the war in Madrid, where Lorenzo took his first degree in philosophy and literature. After further studies in Munich, he completed a doctorate in modern philology and after some years as a schoolteacher, was awarded a chair in Germanic and English at Madrid’s Complutense university, where he ran a prestigious institute of modern languages and translation.
The English language was his second home and from the 1950s, his most important writings dealt with its influence – sometimes helpful, sometimes egregious – on the language of Cervantes, spoken nowadays by ten times the population of its mother country and exposed to the mixed blessings of globalisation.
One has only to flick through a Spanish newspaper to see a company that is a líder in its sector advertising for a director of márketing; the sports pages, of course, major on fútbol rather than the now obsolete balompié originally preferred by the RAE. A corner kick is un córner; the manager, el míster; a penalty, un penalty, and so on. Ordering a gin and tonic, the correct ginebra y tónica might earn a blank look while gintónic will produce the desired results.
Lorenzo did not resist the acceptance into Spanish of words that other languages did better; but it annoyed him, for instance, to hear wild strawberries described as salvajes – a literal translation from English – when the pukka Spanish is silvestre. He was elected to the RAE in 1980, but a bout of meningitis (which left him almost totally deaf) meant he could not take up his seat for more than a year. When he did so, it was with a magisterial acceptance speech on "the supposed sufferings and shortcomings of our language".
His major books included essays on contemporary Spanish as “a language on the boil”, or “at the crossroads”; he also wrote standard textbooks of English and Spanish, and among his translations were versions of the Nibelungenlied and Jonathan Swift. His later master work, Anglicismos hispánicos (1996), running to more than 700 pages, explored not only the infiltration of Spanish by loan words like detective, chip or by-pass but the way that clumsily direct translations from English were giving existing Spanish words altered meanings or introducing dubious grammatical innovations. In some cultured Spanish circles, the definitively correct usage of a given term is known as its emilio lorenzo.
At three universities, the Complutense, Las Palmas and the Menéndez Pelayo, Lorenzo was for many years in charge of some of the most popular – and rigorous – courses in Spanish as a foreign language.
Although an academic to his fingertips, Lorenzo was not the ivory tower type: on the contrary, he kept a close eye on newspapers and popular culture to chart the evolution of the language. He was consulted on issues of house style by at least two quality papers, ABC and El País, where the cartoonist Forges keeps up a corruscating commentary on Spanish yuppiedom’s infatuation with English, usually in a quaintly mutilated form. Even in his eighties, he was senior consultant on a handbook of terminology in telephony and mobile communications.
Many honours included the German Grand Cross of Merit, the rank of Chevalier des Palmes Académiques and doctorates from Seville and Salamanca. Sadly, English academia does not appear to have fully acknowledged its debt.
Lorenzo died in Madrid after a short of illness. Assiduous to the end, he took bundles of RAE papers to hospital with him to occupy his final weeks. Widowed many years ago, he leaves five children, numerous grandchildren and an Academy that will find it hard to fill his seat – the lower-case h – with a scholar of equal dedication to his own language and to ours.
  • Emilio Lorenzo Criado, philologist: born 10 June 1918, died 2 July 2002
[FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE INDEPENDENT, 10 JULY 2002. Slightly amended here. Photo: EFE]

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