Languages are tapestries of historical and cultural influences. When it comes to English, the language is largely derived from the previously spoken Germanic tongue of the Anglo-Saxons and bears heavy influences from Latin as a result of Roman rule. Many Latin words and phrases are well-known in their origins and commonly used, such as bona fide, de facto, and vice versa.
However, English also contains a number of loanwords from other languages far removed from its Germanic and Latin origins. Many of these words are part of the common dialect, which mean that you’ve probably used them at some point without any idea of their foreign origins.
Of all the words one might expect to have foreign influence, prairie would seem to be one of the least suspect. Its profoundly American application in the grasslands of the Midwest would lead one to think that the origins of the word have always been from the English language. To the contrary, prairie is taken directly from the French word for "meadow".
The Arabic word safar refers to a journey or expedition, much like one might take into the jungle. It is, in fact, the Arabic word from which the English derivative is taken. And the word journey itself is derived from the old French jornee.
The dual use noun/verb doesn’t originate from Caribbean sailors or Germanic nomads but from a much farther corner of the world. Loot is taken directly from the Hindi word lut, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word lotram. It bears the same meaning of stolen property in Hindi.
We have the West Africans to thank for both the word and subsequent icon of popular culture that was birthed with the idea of zombies. The word is derived from the Kongo words for God (zumbi) and Fetish (nzumbi). When West African slaves landed in Haiti, they brought substantial creole cultural influences into the area. One of these influences was voodoo, and with it came the concept of reanimated corpses or “zombies.”
The word glitch is a more contentious entry on the list. In the 1960s, it originally referred to a surge of current and was later employed by American astronauts to refer to a malfunction or hitch. While the origins are vaguely cryptic, it is believed by some that it originates from the Yiddish word glitsch, meaning “a slippery place.”
The Wild West has a long history of exchange with Mexican culture, from Tex-Mex cuisine to clothing. (Pro tip: don’t tell a Texan you put beans in your chili.) In light of this, it should perhaps come as less of a surprise that the Californian slang for cowboy is actually an Anglicization of its Spanish counterpart vaquero. Think on that one for a moment, buckaroo.
Kòu tóu is the word used in both Mandarin and Cantonese to refer to a deep bow in which one’s head touches the floor. The negative connotation of kowtowing in English usage is a transformation that occurred from the word’s import, perhaps as a result of the Western perspective of this ancient Chinese tradition.
Ketchup is another entry on the list of emblematic words of Americana with surprising foreign origin. Ketchup is derived both in recipe and linguistic origin from the Chinese recipe of kê-tsiap, a Hokkien fish sauce utilizing anchovies alongside a complicated blend of spices. The British were the first to bring the recipe to the West. It wouldn’t be until centuries later that Americans adapted the recipe into the iconic tomato ketchup that we have now married with burgers and fries.
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