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.



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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.



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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.



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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!



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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.



15 English Words That Have Foreign Origins

Published on January 26, 2024

As one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, English managed to fix and patch some of its natural linguistic shortcomings through the borrowing of many, many foreign words.

There are no pure languages, nor isolated communities of speakers . Borrowing and remixing tools and knowledge from elsewhere has always been one of the motors of human progress. And languages are no exception to this trend.

Maybe you already noticed the pattern, likely after learning about the origins of a few English words, but the truth is that almost 29% of the English language is made of words originating from French and Latin languages.

In particular, French has exerted a powerful influence over English, and it is estimated that of the 1000 most commonly used words, around 50% have French origins! These loan words helped us expand our vocabulary and name things and ideas for which we didn't have useful equivalents before.

Join us to learn more about the foreign origins of many of our words, from ‘cartoon’ to ‘karaoke’!


Anonymous - Language of origin: Greek

Credit: Chris Yang

‘Anonymous’ derives from the Greek word ‘anōnumos’, which means someone or something without a name . In English, it is usually used to mean someone who doesn’t want to reveal their identity.


Guru - Language of origin: Sanskrit

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Originally derived from the Sanskrit language, the traditional definition of Guru isn’t just that of an expert on a certain subject but rather describes a full-fledged master with exceptional wisdom and provoking intelligence.


Safari - Language of origin: Arabic

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In modern English, a ‘safari’ is an expedition where animals can be observed in their natural habitat. However, this word is a loan from the Arabic language and it originally means ‘to travel’ .


Kindergarten - Language of origin: German

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This one, translated literally, means ‘children’s garden’. Have you ever noticed that we use so many German words? Another borrowed word with German origins is rucksack .


Rendezvous - Language of origin: French

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From our favorite language to take linguistic loans, this originally French word (literally ‘present-yourself’) is used to describe a meeting at an agreed time and place.


Typhoon - Language of origin: Chinese

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This isn’t a straightforward loan from the Chinese language, but rather a composite word that might carry influences from other languages, like Greek, Portuguese, and Arabic. However, most sociolinguists agree it’s mainly a corruption of the Chinese word ‘taifeng’, which can be translated as ‘big wind’.


Cartoon - Language of origin: Italian

Credit: Erik Mclean

From comic strips to on-screen animations, who doesn’t love cartoons? But did you know this word came from the Italian ‘carton’? Initially, it referred to artistic drawings made on hard paper but was later adopted as a medium for artistic comedy.


Wanderlust - Language of origin: German

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This somewhat romantic term used to describe the passion for traveling or just wandering away was borrowed from the German language early in the twentieth century.


Karaoke - Language of origin: Japanese

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Not just a borrowed word, but a whole borrowed concept too . Karaoke is a Japanese form of entertainment that took English-speaking countries by storm around the eighties and still is a - quite fun - activity for teens and adults alike. The original Japanese term means ‘an empty orchestra’ , following the idea of singing along to recorded music in special clubs or bars.


Metropolis - Language of origin: Greek

Credit: Bruno Aguirre

This Greek loan word describes an important or main city in a country. The original word it’s composed of the words ‘metro’, meaning ‘mother’, and ‘polis’, ‘city’ - so the literal meaning is ‘mother city’.


Lemon - Language of origin: Arabic

Credit: Cristina Anne Costello

As with many citruses, their names derive from Middle Eastern and Asian languages, and the humble lemon is no exception. The Arabic word from which this word derives is ‘laimun’, and it describes a yellow citrus fruit.


Avatar - Language of origin: Sanskrit

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As much as Hollywood would like you to believe this word only came to life after James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, ‘avatar’ is a word derived from the Sanskrit ‘avatra’, meaning "descent". Originally, it referred to the manifestation of a deity in bodily form, but nowadays it is mostly used for an icon or image that you choose to represent yourself in many types of online media.


Ketchup - Language of origin: Chinese

Credit: Dennis Klein

Who would have thought the favorite condiment of burger joints and crispy french fries was a borrowed word? And from Chinese, no less. This word is derived from the Chinese ‘ke-stiap’, meaning a concoction of pickled fish and spices popular in the 1600s. Tomatoes were only added around a hundred years later, creating the famous condiment.


Entrepreneur - Language of origin: French

Credit: Tyler Franta

The word ‘entrepreneur’ derives from the French verb ‘entreprendre’, meaning to do or undertake something . By the 16th century, the verb transformed into the noun ‘entrepreneur’ and started referring to someone who undertakes some form of business venture.


Penguin - Language of origin: Welsh

Credit: Cornelius Ventures

A rare one! While its origins are still disputed, many hold that the word for these cute southern pole birds comes from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’, which means white head . Other accounts instead suggest that the word penguin was used for a now-extinct sea animal and that the noble penguin somehow inherited its name.

Enjoyed discovering which English words and concepts were borrowed from elsewhere? Stay around to learn more about the curious origins of many common words, names, and places.

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