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12 English Words Derived from an Extinct Caribbean Language

Reconstruction of Taino village, via Michal Zalewski//CC BY-SA 3.0

When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, the first humans he encountered were the Taino, an Arawak people, then the most numerous group in the Caribbean, inhabiting what are now Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. They were skilled navigators and farmers with complex social systems, art, music, and poetry. But within half a century, diseases brought by the Spanish wiped out most of the Taino population. Traces of their civilization are preserved in words adopted by the Spanish that passed into English and other languages.

1. BARBECUE

In a 1526 account of life in the Indies, Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés describes something called barbacoa, which was either a raised platform for storing grain and occasionally cooking food, or the particular method of cooking meat on that device. More than a century later, “barbacu’d” first appears in English, as a verb, in Edmund Hickeringill’s Jamaica Viewed (1661). Other travelers to Jamaica helped popularize barbecue cookery in England, and the word was adopted without reference to its other meanings.

2. CARIBBEAN

The region takes its name from the indigenous people called in English Carib, from Spanish caribe, which comes from a word in the Arawakan language group (probably Taino) meaning human being.

3.CANNIBAL

Since different dialects of Taino interchanged l, n, and r sounds, when Columbus heard the name of the Caribe in Cuba, it sounded like "Caniba." The fierce tribe was believed to eat human flesh and the word—anglicized as “cannibal”—was generalized to mean man-eater.

4. CANOE

Canoe, originally meaning a dugout like those used by the natives of the West Indies, entered English in the mid-1500s. It comes from Spanish canoa, which Columbus picked up from the Taino of modern day Haiti.

5. CAY

Confused about the difference between cay, key, (like the Florida Keys), and quay? You’re not alone. English speakers have been muddling them for centuries. The first two refer to a low bank or reef of coral, rock, or sand. Quay (pronounced “key”) is an artificial bank or landing stage, typically built of stone. Quay entered Middle English from Anglo-Norman. English got both cay and key from Spanish cayo. The Spanish word may come from Taino kaya or from French quai (which is pronounced “kay” and means quay). Originally, “cay” and “key” were the same word, sometimes spelled one way but pronounced the other.

6. GUAVA

Guava derives from Spanish guayaba, which comes (essentially unchanged) from Arawak wayaba.

7. HAMMOCK

Spanish colonists learned about hammocks from the Taino, who were protected from crawling critters in their suspended woven-bark beds. Hamaka is Haitian Taino for “fish net.” In the late 16th century, the British Royal Navy fitted out the gun decks of their ships with hammocks, which allowed sleeping sailors to sway with the motion of the ship instead of being pitched out of stationary bunks.

8. HURRICANE

Speaking of things that could dislodge a sailor from his bunk, "hurricane" comes from Spanish huracán, from Taino hurakán, “god of the storm.”

9. MAIZE

The Spanish word for what speakers of American English call “corn,” mahiz (now maíz) first shows up in 1500 in Columbus’s diary. The Taino word was mahiz or mahís.

10. POTATO

How could "potato" be of Taino origin? Potatoes don’t grow in the tropics; they’re from Peru, right? Right. But "potato" comes from the Spanish word patata, which comes from Taino batata, and refers to what we now call the sweet potato. Columbus introduced the plant to Spain in 1493. Later, Spanish explorers in the Andes encountered what we call potatoes. Spanish adopted the Quechua word papa for those tubers. English speakers used modifiers for the different kinds of “potatoes,” but confusion ensued anyway.

11. SAVANNAH

The word "savannah"—meaning an open plain of long grass, frequently with scattered drought-resistant trees—may bring East Africa to mind, but such grasslands also exist in the tropical West Indies. The Taino word zavana was adopted into post-classical Latin in 1516 as zauana and into Spanish in 1519 as çavana (now sabana). In the late 1600s, savannah began to be used in the English colonies of North America to mean a marsh, bog, or other damp or low-lying ground.

12. TOBACCO

According to Oviedo (the explorer mentioned above under "barbecue"), the Spanish word tabaco comes unchanged from a Haitian Taino word for the pipe used for smoking, but in a 1552 work, Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas says the word applied to a roll of dried leaves that was smoked like a cigar. The American Heritage Dictionary says Spanish may have been influenced by a similar Arabic word for a Mediterranean medicinal plant.

Sources: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.); Library of Congress, Exhibits…Columbus and the Taino; Barbecue: a history; Oxford English Dictionary Online;  New Oxford American Dictionary, (2nd ed.)Wikipedia, Taíno language.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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