Borrowing from the Americas

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Today we’re going to zoom out from specifically looking at the United States of America to taking a look at some English language words that have been borrowed from the indigenous languages of the Americas as a whole, from Alaska and Greenland to the southernmost tip of South America. Many of these words describe plants or animals that are from the Americas, whilst others may describe aspects or objects from Native American or First Nations day-to-day life (such as wigwams and igloos). In this post, though, we hope to look at some words whose origins might surprise you!

When you think of British items of clothing, you probably think of wellies and anoraks long before you think of flip flops and sunglasses, but the word ‘anorak’ is actually borrowed from the Greenlandic Inuit Language. In the 1930s the word was applied to Western imitations of the Greenlandic ‘anoraq’ (a waterproof jacket with a hood). Greenlandic Inuit Language is still spoken by about 57,000 people in Greenland.

The word ‘barbecue’ comes from the Taíno word ‘barabicu’ which refers to the structure used for cooking meat over a fire. Taíno was the principal language of the Caribbean islands when they were conquered by the Spanish. Similar words were also used to describe similar structures across South and Central America. The word entered English via the Spanish who wrote this word down as ‘barbacoa’. In 1733, barbecue was used to mean an outdoor meal of roasted meat or fish, and in 1933 it took its more modern meaning referring to the actual grill used for cooking outdoors.

Many people believe that barbecue is a contraction of a French expression: ‘de la barbe à la queue’, which means ‘from the beard to the tail’ and could refer to the roasting of a whole goat. The true sourcing of this word to the Americas, however, is fairly well authenticated.

Chocolate’ comes from the Nahuatl word ‘xocolatle’. Chocolate was brought to Spain by 1520, and then made its way to the rest of Europe. It is possible the word is made up from the Nahuatl ‘xocolia’ which means ‘to make bitter’ and ‘atl’ which means ‘water’ – indeed chocolate was originally a drink made from ground, roasted, and sweetened cacao seeds added to water. Nahuatl is still spoken by an estimated 1.5 million Nahua people living in Central Mexico and El Salvador.

Hurricane’ comes from ‘Juracán’, the Taíno and Carib god of storms and chaos. ‘Juracán’, in turn, seems to have evolved from the Mayan god Huracan, who punished the second generation of humans with the Great Flood and subsequently caused land to rise from the floodwaters. When this word was adopted into Spanish, the now silent letter ‘h’ was pronounced and was often interchangeable with the letter ‘f’. The same word in Portuguese, thus, became ‘furacão’. The OED, thus, records 39 different spellings for the word (including ‘forcane’, ‘herrycano’, and ‘hurlecane’) and Shakespeare uses ‘hurricano’.

Finally, the word ‘potato’ comes from the Spanish word ‘patata’ which in turn derives from the Taíno word for sweet potato: ‘batata’. Like chocolate, sweet potatoes were first brought to Spain (this time in the 1560s) and then were introduced to the rest of Europe. The name was later extended to the common white potato which was brought over to Europe from Peru in the 1590s.

Did any of our words surprise you?

Avani Shah


15 Jul 2013
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