11 Common English Words from Native American Languages

iStock/Bouillante
iStock/Bouillante

You’re probably well aware that tepee, totem, and toboggan are all Native American names for familiar objects, but what about hickory, jerky, and tobacco? Native American languages gave us scores of words for things we frequently use—not to mention the many states, rivers, and towns that evolved from Native American names.

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month in November, we’ve compiled a list of 11 words commonly used in English that were coined by Indigenous groups across the Americas.

1. Opossum

The Native American name of North America’s resident marsupial comes from the Virginia Algonquian word opassum (alternately spelled aposoum), which means “white dog” or “white beast” in the Powhatan language. Skunk, coyote, raccoon, moose, woodchuck, and caribou are a few of the other animals that owe their names to Native American tribes.

2. Squash

When English settlers first arrived in North America, they used squash as a verb (meaning to crush something) and, more arcanely, to refer to an unripe pea pod. However, they were unfamiliar with the fruit we now know as squash, according to Merriam-Webster. The Narragansett tribe from present-day New England called it askútasquash, which was eventually shortened to squash in English.

3. Chocolate

This delicious treat comes to us from nature, but we can thank Indigenous Mesoamericans for this Native American name. The word chocolate comes from Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs (many Indigenous people in Mexico speak dialects of Nahuatl today). The Aztecs would make a drink from ground cacao seeds called chikolatl.

4. Hammock

A woman in a hammock
iStock.com/BartCo

This word comes from hamaca, whose origins are slightly unclear: It could be from the now-extinct Taíno language (once spoken by Indigenous people in the Caribbean), or from a related Arawakan language. It originally referred to a “stretch of cloth” and entered the English language via the Spanish (who still call it a hamaca).

5. Barbecue

This also comes from a Taíno word—barbacòa—and entered English via Spanish explorers who must have thought the cooking method was pretty nifty. It originally meant “structure of sticks set upon posts” and was first recorded in print as barbecoa in Spanish in 1526.

6. Avocado

Sorry, avocado trivia lovers, but the story that this word originally meant testicle isn’t quite right. According to Nahuatl scholar Magnus Pharao Hansen, the Nahuatl name for the fruit, ahuacatl, was also slang for testicle, but only ever slang. The word ahuacatl chiefly described the fruit. It entered Spanish in the late 1600s as aguacate, and was eventually Anglicized as avocado.

7. Guacamole

In a similar vein, guacamole stems from two Nahuatl words: ahuacatl (avocado) and molli (sauce). Mix them together and they make ahuacamolli. Molli, as fans of chicken mole enchiladas will know, was later spelled mole in Mexican Spanish. Tomato (tomatl), chili (chilli), and chipotle (chilli + poctli, meaning something smoked) are a few other food words that come to us from Nahuatl.

8 and 9. Canoe and Kayak

Two people kayak near glaciers
iStock.com/Caval

Canoe and kayak are both Indigenous words, but they were coined by different tribes. Kayak can be traced back to the Inuit of present-day Greenland, who call the long boat qajaq. The word is also present throughout the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan languages. Canoe, on the other hand, comes from the Arawakan word canaoua. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, early spellings of canoe were cano, canow, and the Spanish canoa, “before spelling settled down” in the 18th century.

10. Poncho

Indigenous peoples in central Chile who speak Araucanian languages dubbed their shawl-like “woolen fabric” a pontho. They were often worn by huasos, or cowboys, who lived in central and southern Chile. Nowadays, ponchos are commonplace throughout Latin America.

11. Hurricane

The Maya believed in a “god of the storm,” and they called it Hunrakan. This same word was picked up throughout Central America and the Caribbean to refer to an evil deity. Spanish explorers in the Caribbean changed the spelling to huracán and used it to describe the weather phenomenon, and it was finally introduced into English by the 16th century.

Guess the Places These Foods Were Named After

What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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