Cinco de Mayo is an ever-more-popular holiday in North America, as Mexican and U.S. culture mixes ever more deeply. From taquerias to Chili's, from massive chipotle chains to humble enchilada trucks, restaurants celebrate the 5th of May with promotions, decorations, and special platters. And none of us feel the need to italicize "taco," "chipotle," or even "huarache," whether shoe or lunch item, today.


Spanish terms flavor our English; songs such as "Buenos Tardes, Amigo," from Ween's 1994 blockbuster Chocolate and Cheese and Beck's "Que Onda Guero?" from his 2005 disc, Guero , commingle the two languages with nary a nod to their differences, it seems.


But in print, a long-running convention holds that words in foreign languages should be italicized, at least until they make it past some kind of immigration barrier and are "accepted" as words in one dictionary or another. Think about it: We eat tacos and enchiladas and nachos, but we still greet them with open, and italic, abrazos (or bocas, to be more accurate.)


And what about words from languages other than Spanish? Respondez s'il vous plait still gets the italic treatment, years after its arrival and near-universal recognition; we chow down on eclairs and flambé all sorts of things, but bûche de Noël still appears in "that slanted type" when we discuss that particularly toothsome manifestation of the Yule log. And surely, when we thank a Turkish cabbie with tesekkurler, we don't reprint it without the itals. And what about ni hao?


What's the rule? may be the plaintive cry. Previously, many style guides prescribed that if a foreign word appeared in the main body of a dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, then it received no special type treatment—no italics. If it appeared in the funny little appendix titled "Foreign Words and Terms," italics were strongly recommended, but only at first mention. Subsequent mentions would always be set in the regular font.


But those distinctions are falling by the wayside as electronic communication makes international discourse—in type, even—so instant, constant, and ubiquitious that typographic distinctions between languages are increasingly ignored. For those who choose, Merriam-Webster's is as good, or bad, a gatekeeper as any.


And for those who don't care to keep the immigration barrier gates up, there really aren't any rules about italicizing foreign words, except the underlying reason for most typographic and stylistic rules: If it confuses the reader, and you don't want to confuse the reader, think twice about what you are doing.


And enjoy Cinco de Mayo, Mother's Day, and any other holidays you care to observe!




Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.


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