Uncover The Native Roots Of 13 English Terms
Published on January 26, 2024
Credit: Boston Public Library
The rich tapestry of Native American languages has woven itself into the linguistic fabric of modern English. From everyday words to the names of places and people, Native American contributions are ubiquitous yet often overlooked.
Let's explore thirteen instances where Native American languages left an indelible mark on the English language.
Credit: Avin CP
The undisputed king of salads everywhere is a plant native to South and Central America, so it should come as no surprise that its name shares the same geographical origin, too. This plump, umami -rich berry was first domesticated by the indigenous people of Mexico, who called it tomatl , literally meaning "swelling fruit." As with many indigenous words, it was slightly altered when it was assimilated into the English language, becoming the familiar tomato .
Credit: Joshua J. Cotten
This medium-sized mammal native to North America derives its modern name from the Algonquian arahkun, meaning "animal that scratches with its hands." Kind of a cute name if you ask me! The word went through many successive translations, from the original Algonquian word to interpretations like _raugroughcum_—that sort of sounds like a growling animal, you gotta give it to them—to arocoun around the year 1600, before eventually settling as raccoon .
Credit: SaiKrishna Saketh Yellapragada
Grab your oars and get ready to paddle into the rivers of language because canoe is also a word of Native American origin! It comes from the Arawakan canaoua, and it refers to the dugout boats made by the indigenous inhabitants of what now is Haiti. It first came into English from the Spanish version of the word canoa. Afterward, the word went through many variations, like cano and canow, before settling in the modern spelling.
Credit: Tarah Dane
The term moccasin , referring to a comfy type of soft leather shoe, has its roots in the Algonquian word makasin , meaning "shoe." While the versatile footwear has a Native American origin, it transcended cultural boundaries, finding utility as the footwear of various indigenous North American communities, as well as hunters, traders, and European settlers.
Credit: Alexey Demidov
The term hurricane has a fascinating linguistic journey, originating in the Spanish term huracan, itself derived from an Arawakan word. As with many Native American words, it first came to English through Spanish during the Age of Exploration.
According to the Taino people, indigenous to the Caribbean, Huricán was a god of destruction linked to wind, storm, and fire. Spanish explorers in the Caribbean adopted the term as huracán , eventually evolving into the modern hurricane by the 16th century.
Credit: Virgil Cayasa
First domesticated by the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico about 10,000 years ago, maize (i.e. corn) remains a staple food to this day, with its total production even surpassing that of wheat and rice. The word maize comes from the Spanish adaptation of the indigenous Taino term mahiz. Although it is more commonly called corn in the United States, most countries derive their word for the crop from the Taino term. Botanist Carl Linnaeus even incorporated it into the species name, Zea mays .
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Just like a real-life mangrove growing in brackish water, languages thrive in complex environments! And the etymology of mangrove is no exception, as it likely entered English through Portuguese mangue or Spanish mangle. However, its etymological roots delve deeper into South American and Caribbean indigenous languages, such as Taino. While some suggest a Malay origin, the use of the term for the American plant at that time remains challenging to explain.
Credit: Austin Neill
The etymology of buccaneer is quite intriguing, originating from the Caribbean Arawak word buccan. This term referred to the wooden frames used by the indigenous people of the region for the slow-roasting or smoking of meat. You might wonder, how exactly did this term end up being used to refer to 18th-century privateers? Well, originally, the designation applied to landless hunters on the islands who were adept at smoking meat in the Caribbean way. As local corsairs often bought their smoked goods, the term eventually expanded to encompass the corsairs and privateers themselves.
Credit: Estevao Gedraite
A savanna, a woodland-grassland mix with widely spaced trees, gets its name from the Spanish sabana, also borrowed from the Taino language, meaning "treeless grassland." The change in pronunciation of the letter b from Taino to Spanish carried over into English, becoming a v . In the U.S., particularly in Florida, "savannah" historically referred to the low-lying marshy ground since the 1670s, with the term "savannah-grass" documented by 1756. To be fair, the Taino people really made a huge contribution to our modern vocabulary!
Credit: Jenn Kosar
The name of this coveted snack actually comes from the Portuguese caju, derived from the Tupian word acajú, meaning "nut that produces itself." What does that mean, exactly? We’re not sure. But what's clear is that cashews, despite their colloquial classification as nuts, are not true nuts but rather a type of drupe, akin to olives and dates. As you finish this read, consider indulging in some cashews—not only are they a delightful snack, but they also offer many brain-boosting benefits!
Credit: Joshua Sukoff
The seemingly strange term caucus, signifying a political gathering, likely first originated in the British colonies of North America, notably Boston. While its etymology is debated, one of the leading theories links it to the Algonquian _caucauasu,_meaning "counselor." Others suggest a connection to the Greek word kaukos , meaning "drinking cup," in connection to private drinking clubs.
Credit: Danny de Jong
Are you ready to grill? Well, the Arawak peoples of the Caribbean are! The English word barbecue and its counterparts in various other languages have their roots in the Spanish term barbacoa, which, in turn, happens to originate from an Arawak word, barabicu. The words can be roughly translated as a "framework of sticks set upon posts," technically what we would now call a grill.
Credit: Abigail Lynn
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck? Probably not much. But did you know that the word for the beloved woodchuck (also known as a groundhog) stems from an Algonquian word? The etymology of the name woodchuck is completely unrelated to wood or chucking, and instead is derived from the Algonquian name for the animal: wuchak. The amusing twist in the name's origins might be attributed to a misunderstanding of the original name, or maybe just the work of a prankster. In any case, it stuck.