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.

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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