10 English Words You Didn't Know Come From Native American Languages

Published on June 27, 2024

Credit: David Trinks

Ever paused a conversation to think about where our words come from ? It's not something most people do, right? However, some of the words we use every day have origins that might surprise you. English has terms and expressions with varied germs, with roots from far-off places like Japan! But there are others that originated here in the Americas , like "hurricane," "chocolate," and "raccoon," which all hail from Native American languages .

If you want to know more about the stories behind these terms, join us as we uncover the fascinating origins and meanings of 10 English words rooted in Native American languages!



Credit: J D

You are probably familiar with a charming animal known as the Virginia opossum . This unique creature holds the title of being the only marsupial species native to North America , and it was the Powhatan people, early inhabitants of Virginia's Tidewater region, who gave this particular animal its name.

Our word " opossum " comes from the Algonquian Powhatan term apässum ****. But what does apässum mean? Well, it simply **translates to "white animal,"**describing some of the color shades of this cute little beast.



Credit: Kier in Sight Archives

Who can resist the temptation of a delicious piece of chocolate ? Definitely not us! This treat is still the star in confectionery and pastry shops, but did you know its history goes back many centuries?

In fact, we thank the ancient Mesoamericans Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs not just for the tasty chocolate itself, but also for giving us the word we use to name it.

In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, xocolātl (translated to "bitter water") referred to the bitter drink they made from the chocolate plant. When the Spanish arrived, they embraced both the delicious product and its name. The Nahuatl word "xocolātl" evolved into the Spanish chocolate , which soon spread across Europe. The name then took on similar forms in various languages, including English ( chocolate ), German ( schokolade ), French ( chocolat ), and Italian ( cioccolato ).



Credit: Eric Lagergren

Have you ever put your feet into a good pair of moccasins ? Even if you haven't, we are sure you are familiar with this type of shoes. Whether you wear them indoors as slippers or outdoors as stylish casual footwear, we have Native Americans to thank for these practical shoes.

It was the Powhatan people who gave these shoes their name, using the word makasin , which eventually transformed into the English term "moccasin." Back in the 17th century and earlier, this word specifically described a type of footwear typically made from soft deerskin, with a sole made from a single piece of leather.



Credit: Marco Oriolesi

This is another word that reflects the flexible and adaptive nature of language. Although its origin is debated , one theory suggests that "caucus" might come from the Algonquian word caucauasu , which means "counselor" or "advisor."

The word as we know it today first appeared in English in the mid-18th century . In fact, one of its earliest known uses comes from the writings of none other than John Adams in 1763 , when he used it to describe a meeting of political party members.



Credit: Gary Bendig

The opossum isn't the only creature named by Native Americans . Just like many other animals living near Indigenous communities, the raccoon also owes its name to the Powhatan people.

The original Powhatan word for raccoon is aroughcun or arathkone . It can be translated to "the one that scratches with hands," describing one of the typical behaviors of raccoons.

European settlers adapted the word into English in the 17th century , with early spellings varying from "aroughcun" to "raugroughcun" and "rarowcun" before finally settling on "raccoon."



Credit: Alexey Demidov

Did you know that the English word " hurricane " is actually an adaptation of a Spanish term? But wait, there's more! The Spanish word itself comes from a Taino expression.

The Tainos were an Indigenous group from the Caribbean that had their own word for the powerful storms that hit the area: juracán , which also was the name for the god of chaos .

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas and had to face these fierce Caribbean storms, they borrowed the Taino term, which became the Spanish huracán .



Credit: silviu bocan

Something similar happened with the word "cigar." This time, it was the Mayans who first named this product, calling it sikar , which translates to "to smoke rolled tobacco leaves." Pretty specific, right? While the Mayan word originally referred to the act of smoking tobacco, the Spanish later adopted it, transforming it into cigarro to describe the rolled tobacco leaves many people smoke.

Subsequently, both the word and the product gained huge popularity in America and Europe. The term was adapted into various languages , resulting in language-specific versions such as "cigar" in English , cigare in French, and Zigarre in German.



Credit: Elisa Stone

The Abenakis , who lived in regions now known as the northeastern United States and parts of eastern Canada like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec, had this word in their language: s eganku .

Want to know what this term means? Well, s_eganku_ can be translated as "the one that emits a smell," and it was sometimes interpreted as "the urinating fox" ! It sounds like the title of a fun children's tale, right? But that's the fitting name the Abenaki people gave to the skunk .

It was this word that the English borrowed and adapted. It first appeared in English in the early 17th century with spellings like "squuncke" and "skuncke" before finally settling on the "skunk" we know today.



Credit: Aurora K

** Pawcohiccora **is the beautiful word used by the Native American Powhatan people to call a type of food made from hickory nuts. The Powhatan would gather these nuts, chop them, and extract their oil to create delicious pastes or drinks.

Some hypotheses claim that when European settlers arrived in North America, they adopted this word, which was later shortened and adapted into English as "hickory," as seen in some 17th-century texts. Over time, the meaning broadened and came to refer to the hickory tree itself, native to North America.



Credit: Cameron Stow

The anorak , that trendy and cool garment worn by people of all ages today, has a history that's older than you might think!

The Inuit are indigenous peoples who primarily inhabit the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and even some parts of Russia. Among the words that make up the rich Inuit vocabulary is anoraq , which refers to a type of clothing usually made from caribou or seal skin.

The English took the word and gave it a twist to transform it into "anorak," describing that comfy type of jacket that keeps us cozy and dry, just like the Inuit's anoraq !


10 Thunderous Facts About Storms and Weather Patterns

Published on June 27, 2024

Credit: Nikolas Noonan

While talking about the weather might have bad press, no one can resist the awe-inspiring allure of a powerful storm or a display of lightning against a pitch-black sky. And even if this raw demonstration of the power of nature frightens you - or you just find it boring, the myriad of subtle intricacies of atmospheric phenomena are bound to catch your eye.

Here are 10 curious facts about storms and weather phenomena to quench your sense of wonder, and - hopefully - leave you a bit more appreciative of nature's grandeur.


Lightning Strikes

Credit: Johannes Plenio

Each year, Earth experiences about 1.4 billion lightning strikes. These bolts of electricity can reach temperatures of up to 30,000 Kelvin (53,540 degrees Fahrenheit), hotter than the surface of the sun. This violent phenomenon occurs when electrical imbalances build up within clouds or between clouds and the ground. The thunder that follows a lightning bolt is caused by the rapid expansion of air around it, and it can travel from 15 to 30 miles from the point where the strike occurred. In fact, if you count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and its sound, and divide it by 5, you can approximate the distance in miles to the source of the lightning. Just make sure you are in a safe place while counting!


Tornado Alley

Credit: NOAA

Tornado Alley, a loosely defined region in the central United States, sees more tornadoes than any other place on Earth. This area, stretching from Texas to South Dakota, experiences frequent tornado activity due to the collision of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cold, dry air from Canada. The combination of these air masses, along with the presence of the Rocky Mountains to the west, creates an environment ripe for the formation of these formidable wind vortexes. If you happen to live in an area prone to tornadoes, just don’t try to emulate Dorothy, or you might end up much farther away than the Land of Oz.


Hurricane Names

Credit: NASA

Did you know that hurricanes are given names to help with communication and awareness? The use of names for hurricanes dates back to the 1950s and helps to avoid confusion when multiple storms are active simultaneously, as names are much easier to remember than numbers or technical terms. The World Meteorological Organization generates lists of names that are rotated every six years, except for particularly destructive storms, whose names are retired forever.



Credit: Matthieu Joannon

Haboobs are massive dust storms that occur in arid regions, such as the Sahara Desert and the southwestern United States. These towering walls of dust can reach heights of 4,921 feet and travel at speeds of up to 60 mph, engulfing everything in their path. Haboobs typically form when cold downdrafts from thunderstorms hit the ground and kick up loose, dry soil and sand. These intense dust storms can reduce visibility to near-zero levels, posing serious dangers to motorists and even disrupting air travel.


The Fujita Scale

Credit: John Middelkoop

The Fujita Scale, developed by Dr. Ted Fujita in 1971, measures the intensity of tornadoes based on the damage they cause to human-built structures and vegetation. The scale ranges from F0 (light damage) to F5 (incredible damage), with wind speeds exceeding 300 mph for the most severe tornadoes. In recent years, the original scale has been replaced by the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale), which incorporates modern engineering and construction standards to assess tornado damage more accurately.


Weather Folklore

Credit: Noah Silliman

Throughout history, people have relied on old sayings and common knowledge to predict the weather. From "red sky at night, sailor's delight" to "ring around the moon means rain real soon," these sayings often contain kernels of truth based on observable atmospheric patterns. Even when most are - more likely than not - not scientifically accurate, they prove that humanity has always been intrinsically connected to weather patterns.


Atmospheric Rivers

Credit: Ryan Arnst

Atmospheric rivers are narrow corridors of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere that can transport vast amounts of water vapor across long distances. This phenomenon plays a crucial role in global weather patterns and can lead to heavy rainfall and flooding whenever they make landfall. Scientists believe that changes in global temperatures and atmospheric humidity will increase the intensity and frequency of weather phenomena caused by atmospheric rivers in the next few years.


The Coriolis Effect


The Coriolis Effect is a phenomenon caused by Earth's rotation, which deflects moving objects, including air and water, to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. This effect influences the direction of winds and ocean currents, shaping global weather patterns. For this reason, large currents of air and powerful weather events like cyclones display either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction of motion depending on their position in the globe.


El Niño and La Niña

Credit: Chris Gallagher

El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which refers to fluctuations in sea surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These large weather patterns can directly influence the climate around the globe, affecting precipitation, temperatures, and storm activity. While El Niño events are marked by an anomalous warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific, in contrast, La Niña events are characterized by cooler-than-average temperatures.



Credit: Wolfgang Hasselmann

Hailstorms occur when strong updrafts in thunderstorms carry raindrops into colder regions of the atmosphere, where they freeze and accumulate layers of ice before falling to the ground. The size of hailstones can vary widely, ranging from pea-sized pellets to golf ball-sized or larger projectiles capable of causing significant damage to property, crops, and vehicles. The largest hailstone ever recorded fell on the town of Vivian, South Dakota, during an extraordinary hailstorm, and it was larger than a bowling ball, measuring 7.87 inches in diameter and weighing almost 2 pounds!

Looking for an extra scoop of literary fun?

Learn more with our Word of the day