15 Words You Use Without Realizing They're From Foreign Languages

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The English language loves a good loan word. These are words and phrases lifted directly from another language. You may recognize some of the popular French sayings that have made their way into English as borrowed phrases—bon voyage or nom de plume, for instance—but you probably pepper your speech with foreign words all the time without realizing it. Here are 15 words taken from foreign languages that you might not know have origins abroad.

1. CUL-DE-SAC

The term for a dead-end street comes from the French for “bottom of the sack.” Or, if you’d prefer, the “butt of the bag.”

2. CHOWDER

The thick soup’s name may have come from a French word for cauldron, chaudière. New Englanders probably got their penchant for chowder from Nova Scotian fishermen. 

3. MOSQUITO

The biting insect’s name means “little fly” in Spanish. 

4. AVATAR

The word now commonly applied to a person’s representation in a virtual world is Sanskrit in origin. The English language borrowed it from Hindi or Urdu. In Hinduism, it means the manifestation of a god in bodily form. 

5. KOWTOW

The English language borrowed this word for acting in a subservient manner from China. Kòu tóu is a traditional bow of respect that involves touching one’s head to the floor. (The word is the same in both Mandarin and Cantonese.) 

6. TSUNAMI

In Japan, the word means “harbor wave.” It was first used in English in an 1896 issue of National Geographic to describe an earthquake-driven wave that struck Japan’s main island. 

7. TATTOO

Polynesian societies have been tattooing for more than 2000 years. In Samoan, the word is tatau; in Marquesan, tatu. British explorer James Cook was the first to coin the English word, in describing his 18th century Pacific voyages and the inked individuals he met in Polynesia. 

8. LEMON

The name for the yellow citrus fruit may have originally come from an Arabic term for citrus, līmūn. In standard modern Arabic, the word for lemon is pronounced “laymuun.” 

9. SHERBET

The fruity frozen dessert’s name came from the Middle East, either from the Turkish şerbet or from the Persian term sharbat.

10. AFICIONADO

Foreign language aficionados stole this word directly from Spanish. It’s the past participle of the verb aficionar: to inspire affection. 

11. HOI POLLOI

The often-derogatory English phrase for common folk is lifted from the ancient Greek words for “the many.”

12. PRAIRIE

The word most associated with the grasslands of the American Midwest isn’t English in origin. It’s a French word for meadow. 

13. FEST

Fest would seem like an obvious abbreviation of the word festival, a word that came into English from French by way of Latin in the 14th century. But it’s actually the German word for celebration. Hence, Oktoberfest. 

14. INTELLIGENTSIA

Though in English it’s a general term for the well-educated sector of society, the word arose in Russia in the late 19th century as a way to describe a certain group of critical, influential intellectuals, mostly urban professionals like lawyers, writers, artists, and scholars. It was first used in English in 1905. 

15. CANYON

The English term for the deep, steep gorge formed by a river was borrowed from the Spanish by early 19th century Americans exploring what was then Spanish territory in the west. Cañón also means “tube” in Spanish, and might refer to the way that water flows through narrow canyons.

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January 15, 2016 - 12:15am
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