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36 Common English Words from Other Languages


“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” James D. Nicoll

  1. A LA CARTE

  • You’ll often see this French phrase on your restaurant menu, and it simply means the act of ordering individual dishes rather than ordering from a fixed-price menu. Its use in English often suggests the food is posh and expensive, but this departs from the original meaning.

  1. ALLIGATOR

  • This is a Spanish word meaning either of two broad-snouted crocodilians of thegenus Alligator, of the southeastern U.S. and eastern China. It comes from Spanish "el lagarto" the lizard

  1. AVATAR

  • The word now commonly applied to a person’s representation in a virtual world is Sanskrit in origin. The English language borrowed it from Hindi or Urdu. In Hinduism, it means the manifestation of a god in bodily form.

  1. CANDY

  • The origins of common English words are very interesting and not always totally clear. Candy is a very common word derived from either one or a mixture of Old French (sucre candi, or sugar candy), Persian (qand, meaning sugar) and Sanskrit (Khanda, or sugar). It’s unclear in which language it really started, and who borrowed it from whom, but the English took it eventually.

  1. CANYON

  • The English term for the deep, steep gorge formed by a river was borrowed from the Spanish by early 19th century Americans exploring what was then Spanish territory in the west. Cañón also means “tube” in Spanish, and might refer to the way that water flows through narrow canyons.

  1. CHOWDER

  • The thick soup’s name may have come from a French word for cauldron, chaudière. New Englanders probably got their penchant for chowder from Nova Scotian fishermen.

  1. CLICHÉ

  • This French word was originally used to signify a printing plate cast from moveable type, also known as a stereotype. Once the letters were set, it made sense to cast phrases repeatedly, hence our adoption of the word ‘cliché.’

  1. COOKIE

  • This is a wonderful word brought to us by the Dutch "koekie". We love this small treat with chocolate chips.

  1. COURT

  • In French this means the king’s residence and was often the place to which someone was called in order to respond to accusations.

  1. CUL-DE-SAC

  • The term for a dead-end street comes from the French for “bottom of the sack.” Or, if you’d prefer, the “butt of the bag.”

  1. DOLLAR

  • This comes from Czech through Dutch. Its roots are connected to the origins of the mint itself: a factory where coins and currency is produced.

  1. FEST

  • Fest would seem like an obvious abbreviation of the word festival, a word that came into English from French by way of Latin in the 14th century. But it’s actually the German word for celebration. Hence, Oktoberfest.

  1. FIESTA

  • We tend to use this common English word to mean a festival or party more generally, but it’s actually a Spanish word mainly used for religious holidays, and in particular saints’ days.

  1. ICON

  • The Greeks brought this modern word we use today for a picture, image, or other representation. It came from their word "eikṓn" meaning likeness, image, figure.

  1. INTELLIGENT

  • Though in English it’s a general term for the well-educated sector of society, the word arose in Russia in the late 19th century as a way to describe a certain group of critical, influential intellectuals, mostly urban professionals like lawyers, writers, artists, and scholars. It was first used in English in 1905.

  1. LEG and SKIN

  • Both words come from Old Norse and replaced “shank” and “hide” upon their arrival. Although the words still exist in English, they are used only for animals once slaughtered.

  1. LEMON

  • The name for the yellow citrus fruit may have originally come from an Arabic term for citrus, līmūn. In standard modern Arabic, the word for lemon is pronounced “laymuun.”

  1. MOSQUITO

  • The biting insect’s name means “little fly” in Spanish.

  1. PERSON

  • This comes from the Latin “persona”. It was adopted by the French language and then eventually made its way into English.

  1. PIANO

  • The name of this popular musical instrument is shortened from ‘pianoforte’ and Italian word meaning soft-loud. ‘Piano’ is also one of the music terms, indicating it should be played softly.

  1. PRAIRIE

  • The word most associated with the grasslands of the American Midwest isn’t English in origin. It’s a French word for meadow.

  1. POLTERGEIST

  • When you think about it, it seems obvious that this is not an English word but actually one of the many common English words adopted from another language. It doesn’t really sound English and the spelling should give it away. Its origin is German, and roughly translates to mean ‘noisy ghost.’

  1. ROBOT

  • The word robot was introduced to the public in 1920 by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. The play is about a factory that makes artificial people called robots. It’s interesting to consider that such a concept didn’t really exist until this point and that the word is Czech.

  1. SHAMPOO

  • Being such an everyday product, shampoo is definitely one of the most common English words adopted from other languages. It dates back to 1762 and is derived from the Hindustani word ‘champo.’

  1. SHERBET

  • The fruity frozen dessert’s name came from the Middle East, either from the Turkish şerbet or from the Persian term sharbat.

  1. SKIPPER

  • This comes from the Dutch “schipper”. Many of our nautical terms are derived from Dutch due to the trade links that existed.

  1. SLAUGHTER

  • This comes from the Old Norse “slatr”.

  1. SLOGAN

  • The word slogan has Irish origins, and was used to describe a battle cry used by Gaelic clans. The fact it was used as a line to be shouted at your enemies and is now something used in marketing makes it one of the most interesting common English words adopted from other languages.

  1. SMITHEREENS

  • It may sound like a quaint English word, but this word, that means small fragmentsor atoms, is believed to be of Irish (Gaelic) origin. You will mostly hear it in phrases such as ‘to explode into smithereens.’ No one is really sure of how old it is, so whether it’s from old or modern Irish is unclear.

  1. TATTOO

  • Polynesian societies have been tattooing for more than 2000 years. In Samoan, the word is tatau; in Marquesan, tatu. British explorer James Cook was the first to coin the English word, in describing his 18th century Pacific voyages and the inked individuals he met in Polynesia.

  1. TSUNAMI

  • In Japan, the word means “harbor wave.” It was first used in English in an 1896 issue of National Geographic to describe an earthquake-driven wave that struck Japan’s main island.

  1. THEY / THEIR

  • This common pronoun comes from the Old Norse word “Peir”.

  1. UMBRELLA

  • This Itallian word will keep our head dry in the rain. It comes from the word "ombrella" meaning "shade".

  1. VERY

  • This despised yet commonly used adjective comes from the Old French “verai”, which means “true”.

  1. WAR

  • This comes from the Old French “werre”.

  1. ZERO

  • This comes from Arabic. In fact, many of our words related to numeracy, mathematics and trade can be traced back to Arabic.

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