A global language
By studying the origins of many English words we can learn more about the UK’s cultural and historical links with other countries. Some words have been borrowed as a result of trade links, some from political and military involvement, others from nature and new discoveries.
Click on the icons on the map below to discover a selection of 'borrowed' words.
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- Babushka – Russia
- The Russian word means ‘grandmother’, but has shown some interesting developments in English. In the 1830s as a name for any elderly Russian lady, then from the 1930s a name for the headscarf often worn by Russian ladies, and finally an alternative name for a matryoshka or nest of dolls.
- Baroque – Portugal
- Baroque entered English from French in the 1700s, but the name of this European artistic movement of the 1600s and 1700s originates from Portuguese barroco ‘pearl of irregular shape’. The word came to mean ‘bizarre’ in general, and was adopted as the name of an artistic style characterised by bold, florid ornamentation.
- Clan – Scotland
- This can be traced back to the 1400s in English and comes from a Scottish Gaelic word. Scottish Gaelic developed from the Old Irish spoken by Irish settlers in parts of Scotland, and clan shows a borrowing from Latin planta ‘young plant’ in a specialised metaphorical meaning ‘children’. (Substitution of /c/ for /p/ is common in Irish borrowings from Latin.)
- Coach - Hungary
- Coach entered English in the 1500s from French, but comes ultimately from Hungarian, probably from the name of Kocs, a place in Hungary on an important coaching route where such vehicles were apparently made. A sporting coach has the same origin, someone who trains or coaches people being compared to the driver of a horse-drawn coach.
- Cravat - France
- Cravat came into English in the 1600s from French cravate. In French, it meant ‘Croat, Croatian’ as well as the linen scarf that Croatian mercenaries wore round their necks. From this, cravat has come to mean a kind of ornamental neck scarf in English; in French cravate means ‘tie’.
- Dodo – Portugal
- The name of the extinct dodo comes from Portuguese doudo, literally ‘simpleton’, reflecting the fact that the bird showed no fear of man when it was encountered by European sailors. Hence it was easily killed and eaten, and was probably extinct by 1700.
- Dollar - Germany
- The word dollar originated from the German Taler. The word occurs in English from the mid-1500s referring to various different silver coins, including Spanish coins used in many of its colonies. Also used in British colonies in North America during the War of Independence, the dollar was adopted as the US currency in 1785.
- Marmalade – Portugal
- Originally meaning a type of quince jelly, marmalade is first found in English in the late 1400s. Although the word is now widespread in European languages, it may have entered English directly from Portuguese marmelada, as a result of trading links between the countries. The Portuguese word comes from marmelo ‘quince’.
- Parka – Russia
- Parka came into English from Russian in the 1620s, but it originated among the Nenets people of the arctic regions of Russia, and originally referred to the type of jacket made from animal skins that they wore. In the 1890s it began to be found referring to hooded winter coat.
- Pasta – Italy
- The word pasta came into English from Italian in the 1820s. It is ultimately from the same origin as the word paste, one of the earlier meanings of which in English was ‘pasta’.
- Peace – France
- After the Norman Conquest in 1066 the French language began to show a huge influence on English words. The word peace is one of very many words for very basic things and concepts that were borrowed into English from French in the Middle Ages.
- Robot – Czech Republic
- The word robot comes from the Czech word, robota meaning ‘forced labour, drudgery’. The word first appeared in 1920 in Karel Čapek’s play Rossum's Universal Robots. In this play it is the name of a type of mass-produced worker made from artificially synthesized material.
- Royal – France
- The word royal came into English from French royale during the Middle Ages. This is not so surprising, since the English kings and their courtiers spoke French for a long period after the Norman Conquest.
- Samovar – Russia
- This name for a type of heated urn used for making tea came into English from Russian in the early 1800s. The Russian word literally means ‘self-boiler’, an apt name for this device that could heat water economically for many hours.
- Television – Greece
- Television was coined in the early 1900s from Greek tele- ‘far’ and Latin –visio ‘vision’. This sort of word, formed partly from Greek and partly from Latin, is normally called a hybrid formation.
- Vampire – Hungary
- The origins of vampire lie in Eastern Europe, a region where Dracula, the most famous of all vampires, is said to have come from. The word is found in English in the early 1700s, and comes from Hungarian vampir, via French vampire.
- Booze – The Netherlands
- Booze (earlier bouse) comes from the medieval Dutch verb būsen ‘to drink to excess’. It appeared in medieval English, but it is found more frequently in the 1500s, in the language of thieves and beggars, from where it gradually spread to general slang and colloquial use.
- Clock – The Netherlands
- The word clock came into English in the late 1300s from medieval Dutch. The Dutch word, and related words in many other European languages (German Glocke, French cloche), have the basic meaning ‘bell’, but English clock has always referred typically to a mechanism that rings a bell, and hence a timepiece.
- Easel – The Netherlands
- Easel was borrowed in the 1600s from the Dutch word esel meaning ass. This use of the word comes from the resemblance in shape and function, because of the way that an easel bears an artist’s canvas.
- Ski – Norway
- Ski entered English from modern Norwegian in the 1700s. In modern Norwegian, as in most of the other European languages in which the word appears, it is pronounced like English she, not with the ‘hard’ /sk/ sound of the English word.
- Skirt – Scandinavia
- Skirt was borrowed from the language of Scandinavian invaders and settlers in Anglo-Saxon England. The Scandinavian word also meant ‘shirt’, but at some point there was a shift in meaning, from ‘garment worn from the shoulders downwards’ to ‘garment worn from the waist downwards’.
- Admiral – Middle East
- Admiral came into English in the Middle Ages from French and Latin, but ultimately has an Arabic origin. In early use it meant ‘military commander’ as well as specifically ‘commander of a fleet’. The ad- comes from association with ad- in Latin words, such as admīrāri ‘admire’.
- Candy – Middle East
- Candy came into English from French in the late Middle Ages, but it came into French from Arabic. The basic expression is sugar candy, ultimately from Arabic sukkar qandī ‘candied sugar’. The Arabic word is probably of Indian origin.
- Cider – Middle East
- Cider entered English in the Middle Ages from French cidre, and came into French from Latin, which took the word from Greek. It came into Greek through the Bible from Hebrew šēḵār ‘strong drink’.
- Magazine – Middle East
- The idea behind the magazine that you read was originally that it was a ‘storehouse’ for articles. The word entered English from French in the 1500s, but originates in Arabic, in which maḵzin means ‘storehouse’. This can be seen in modern French magasin meaning ‘shop’, as well as in modern English military uses of magazine.
- Gnu – South Africa
- Gnu entered English in the late 1700s from Khoikhoi and San, two related languages of South Africa and is probably an imitation of the animal’s call. Names of animals and plants that were newly encountered during the period of European colonial expansion often show borrowings of indigenous names.
- Trek – South Africa
- Afrikaans’s trek comes originally from Dutch trekken ‘to draw, pull, march, travel’. The specific use of trek in English results from the Afrikaans expression Groot Trek, the ‘Great Trek’ of the 1830s and 1840s, when thousands of Boers, dissatisfied with British colonial rule, trekked north-east from the original Cape Colony to found new settlements.
- Zombie – West African
- Zombie has its origins in West African languages, although it came into English (in the early 1800s or earlier) via the religious beliefs of communities in the Caribbean, the southern U.S., and other parts of the Americas who had been brought from Africa as part of the slave trade.
- Barbecue – Caribbean
- Barbecue came into English from Spanish in the 1600s. It may come from Arawak (indigenous Caribbean language) barbacoa ‘wooden frame on posts’. In its early English use the word had a wider meaning such as ‘rack on which food is cooked over an open fire’ and hence a meal or gathering at which this occurs.
- Llama – Andes / South America
- The name of the llama, the characteristic pack animal of the Andes, unsurprisingly comes originally from Quechua, a language of the Andes. Llama first entered English in 1600 and came into English via Spanish, reflecting Spanish colonialism in South America.
- Moose – New England
- English-speaking settlers in North America borrowed moose as early as the 1640s from the language of an indigenous American people who had been encountering the animal for much longer. It probably came first into English from Eastern Abenaki (New England)
- Puma – South America
- The name of the American wild cat, puma, comes ultimately from Quechua, a language of the Andes. The word is found in English from the 1770s onwards. It entered English via Spanish, like so many words relating to the fauna, flora, landscape, and cultures of the Americas.
- Tomato – Mexico
- Tomato came into English in the 1600s, from Spanish. However, Spanish had itself borrowed the word in the 1530s, soon after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. The word originates from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), in which the word is tomatl, and may come from tomau ‘to grow’.
- Honcho – Japan
- The word honcho ‘boss, leader’ (from the expression head honcho) came from Japanese hanchō ‘group leader’. It is first found in U.S. English in the late 1940s, and was borrowed from Japanese by U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan during the occupation after the Second World War.
- Kung fu – China
- The term kung fu has been found in English since at least the 1950s, but became widely familiar in the West only in the 1970s, largely as a result of the huge popularity of martial arts films from Hong Kong. It comes from Chinese gongfu, formed from the words gong ‘merit’ and fu ‘master’.
- Sushi – Japan
- The word sushi has been found in English from at least the late 1890s. For most of its first hundred years in English, sushi is found chiefly in references to Japan or to the occasional, very exotic Japanese restaurant outside Japan.
- Tea - China
- Tea is first found in English in the mid-1600s, shortly before the first aristocratic craze for tea drinking. Originating in Chinese, tea probably came into English via Dutch, and may have come into Dutch via Malay, reflecting the trading routes by which tea first came to Britain.
- Avatar – India
- Avatar originated from Sanskrit, originally meaning ‘the descent of a Hindu deity to the earth in bodily form’ when it entered English in the late 1700s. The modern use of the word in Science Fiction emerged in the mid-1980s.
- Bungalow – India
- Bungalow was first recorded in the 1600s referring to one-storey houses built for early European incomers in Bengal. It comes from a Hindi or Bengali word meaning ‘belonging to Bengal’.
- Shampoo – India
- Shampoo’s probable origin is Hindi cāṃpo, meaning ‘press!’ The word entered English in the mid-1700s as a result of increasing British involvement in South Asia. The original meaning in English was ‘to massage’. Over time the meaning became ‘to wash or scrub (the head or hair)’, and finally shampoo came to mean the substance for washing the hair.
- Shawl – Pakistan
- Shawl in English came from Urdu or Persian in the 1600s. It entered many other European languages when the item of clothing was imported widely. Like the names of other manufactured items, it is probably ultimately from the name of a place, Shāliāt, a town in India.
- Budgerigar - Australia
- This name for a type of small parrot, often shortened to budgie is perhaps one of the more surprising words to have entered English from Australian Aboriginal languages. Some other examples include other names of animals like kangaroo, koala, wombat, as well as boomerang and corroboree.