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.

40 Words That Start With X

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When the lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson put together his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there weren't a lot of words that started with X; he even included a disclaimer at the bottom of page 2308 that read, “X is a letter which though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.” Noah Webster went one better when he published his Compendious Dictionary in 1806 that included a single X-word, xebec, defined as “a small three-masted vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.” Although, by the time he compiled his landmark American Dictionary in 1828, that total had risen to 13.

X has never been a common initial letter in English, and even with today’s enormous vocabulary you can still only expect around 0.02 percent of the words in a dictionary to be listed under it. But why not try boosting your vocabulary with these 40 words that start with X.

1. X

On its own, the letter X is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb meaning “to cross out a single letter of type.” X. X. in Victorian slang meant “double-excellent,” while X. X. X. described anything that was “treble excellent.”

2. XANTHIPPE

Xanthippe was the name of Socrates’ wife, who, thanks to a number of Ancient Greek caricatures, had a reputation for henpecking, overbearing behavior. Consequently her name can be used as a byword for any ill-tempered or cantankerous woman or wife—as used in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

3. XANTHOCOMIC

Explosion of yellow powder against a white background
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Xanthos was the Ancient Greek word for yellow, and as such is the root of a number of mainly scientific words referring to yellow-colored things. So, if you’re xanthocomic, you have yellow hair; if you’re xanthocroic you have fair hair and pale skin; and if you’re xanthodontous, you have yellow teeth.

4. X-CATCHER

In old naval slang, an X-catcher or X-chaser was someone who was good at math—literally someone good at working out the value of x.

5. X-DIVISION

Victorian slang for criminals or pickpockets, or people who make a living by some underhand means.

6. X-DOUBLE-MINUS

Young boy with a terrified expression on his face
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1960s slang for something really, really terrible.

7. XENAGOGUE

Derived from the same root as xenophobia, a xenagogue is someone whose job it is to conduct strangers or to act as a guide while…

8. XENAGOGY

… a xenagogy is a guidebook.

9. XENIAL

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The adjective xenial is used to describe a friendly relationship between two parties, in particular between a hospitable host and his or her guests, or diplomatically between two countries.

10. XENIATROPHOBIA

Don’t like going to see doctors you don’t know? Then you’re xeniatrophobic.

11. XENIUM

A xenium is a gift or offering given to a stranger, which in its native Ancient Greece would once have been a lavish feast or a refreshing spread of food and fruit. In the 19th century art world, however, xenium came to refer to a still-life painting depicting something like a extravagant display of food or a bowl of fruit.

12. XENIZATION

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A 19th century word meaning “the act of traveling as a stranger.”

13. XENOCRACY

A government formed by foreigners or outsiders is a xenocracy. A member of one is a xenocrat.

14. XENODOCHEIONOLOGY

Defined as “the lore of hotels and inns” by Merriam-Webster.

15. XENODOCHIUM

A young woman uses her cellphone at a hostel in India
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A guesthouse or hostel, or any similar stopping place for travelers or pilgrims.

16. XENODOCHY

A 17th century word for hospitality. If you’re xenodochial then you like to entertain strangers.

17. XENOGLOSSY

The ability to speak a language that you’ve apparently never learnt.

18. XENOLOGY

An illustration of an alien waving at the camera
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The scientific study of extraterrestrial phenomena is xenology. The study of extraterrestrial life forms is xenobiology.

19. XENOMANIA

The opposite of xenophobia is xenomania or xenophilia, namely an intense enthusiasm or fondness for anything or anyone foreign.

20. XENOMORPH

Something unusually or irregularly shaped is a xenomorph—which is why it’s become another name for the eponymous creature in the Alien film franchise.

21. XENOTRANSPLANTATION

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Transplanting organic matter from a non-human into a human (like a pig’s heart valve into a human heart) is called xenotransplantation. Whatever it is that’s transplanted is called the xenograft.

22. XERIC

An ecological term used to describe anywhere extremely dry or arid. If it’s xerothermic, then it’s both dry and hot.

23. XERISCAPE

If you live in a xeric area, then you’ll have to xeriscape your garden. It’s the deliberate use of plants that need relatively little moisture or irrigation to landscape an arid location.

24. XEROCHILIA

Woman applies lip balm while outside during the winter
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The medical name for having dry lips. Having a dry mouth is xerostomia.

25. XEROCOPY

A xerographic copy of a document—or, to put it another way, a photocopy.

26. XEROPHAGY

The eating of dry food is xerophagy. It mightn’t sound like it, but it was originally a religious term.

27. XESTURGY

The proper name for the process of polishing.

28. XILINOUS

A pile of soft cotton against a white background
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Something described as xilinous resembles or feels like cotton …

29. XIPHOID

… while something described as xiphoid resembles a sword.

30. XOANON

Derived from the Greek for “carve” or “scrape,” a xoanon is a carved idol of a deity.

31. XTAL

Large double quartz crystal against a white background
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An abbreviation of “crystal,” according to the OED.

32. XYLOGRAPHER

A 19th century word for a wood engraver.

33. XYLOID

Why say that something is “woody” when you can say that it’s xyloid?

34. XYLOPOLIST

Pile of wood logs ready for sale
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A 17th century formal name for a timber merchant.

35. XYLOTOMOUS

Describes anything or anyone particularly good at wood-cutting or wood-boring.

36. XYRESIC

Means “razor-sharp.”

37. XYROPHOBIA

A pile of razor blades
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The fear of being close to or touching sharp implements.

38. XYLANTHRAX

Nowhere near as nasty as it sounds, this is just an old name for what we now call charcoal.

39. XYSTUS

A type of covered walkway or portico.

40. X.Y.Z.

Late 19th century slang for a journalist who takes on any work going, or else 18th century slang for a dandyish or “exquisite” young man.

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