As one of the most international and widely spoken languages all across the world with an estimated 840 million speakers, English is one of the ultimate languages for travel and communication. That’s assuming we understand each other’s accents!
But did you know how many of the words we use every day comes from other languages? According to Dictionary.com, about 80% of words in any English dictionary have been borrowed, mainly from Latin, Greek or French. Some are obvious, like croissant, entrepreneur and vodka; but some others have been so firmly incorporated into the fabric of our daily vocabulary that you might be surprised!
Here at Inspired, we did our own digging into some common words that have some surprising origins.
1. Disaster (Latin)
This word comes from a surprisingly astrological background. The origin of this word can be traced back to the 16th century when people blamed the influence of the stars and planets for serious catastrophes. It’s created from the Latin negative dis- (“apart”) and astrum (“star).
2. Husband (Old Norse)
The Old Norse word húsbóndi comes from a combination of hús (“house”) and bóndi (“dweller and farmer”). This essentially means a peasant who owned his own house. It replaced the original Old English wer (“married man”). Oh, how times have changed!
3. Shampoo (Hindi)
Personal hygiene as we know it, has been a shockingly recent phenomenon. This word first arose in the mid 18thcentury during British colonialism in India from the Hindi word campo or champi meaning “to press” or massage. This originated from their custom of a full body deep massage, which later evolved into a scalp massage. I for one am infinitely grateful that personal hygiene has grown in leaps and bounds since!
4. Parasite (Ancient Greek)
The Greek word parasitos, which gave us the English word parasite in the 16th century, can be broken down to para (“alongside”) and sitos (“grain” or “food”), which referred to people who ate at someone else’s table. It was originally positive, referring to a fellow guest and friend.
5. Mortgage (Old French)
Mortgages can feel fairly deadly, but you might not realise how true that is! In late 14thcentury French, it literally meant “death contract or pledge”. But relax, it has nothing to do with the death of the borrower. The death referred to the termination of the mortgage itself when fully paid or in the case of non-payment, the land removed from the borrower and essentially ‘dead’ to him. See what I mean? No one has liked mortgages. Ever.
6. Avocado (Aztecs Nahuati)
Warning: this much beloved fruit has a rather unappetising linguistic origin! In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, it is named after a certain part of the male anatomy – possibly due to its shape. When the Spanish adopted the word into their vocabulary, it became aguacate, and from that we eventually got avocado in English.
7. Klutz (Yiddush)
Comes from the Yiddish word klots ( ‘lump’). If we trace it back further, it originates from the German klotz (‘block of wood’ or ‘clumsy person’) which funnily enough, also gave us the English word clot.
8. Punch (Sanskrit)
We’re talking about the drink, not the violent act! This word is believed to have come from the Sanskrit word pañc (“five”) when the original drink had only five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water and tea or spices. This is another word that came about from British colonialism in India.
9. Lingua Franca (Italian)
This word first entered the English vocabulary in the late 17th century and literally means the “Frankish tongue”. The original Lingua Franca was a pidgin Italian called Sabir, which was widely used in commerce in the Mediterranean area during the 11th – 19th century. As to identity of the mysterious franks, they were Western Europeans – so called by the Arabs during the Middle Ages.
10. Leg (Old Norse)
The Old Norse word leggr (“leg, bone of the arm or leg”) came into the English language and replaced the word shank. Imagine calling our legs shanks today!
Delving into the origins of words is a fascinating insight into the history and the extensive travels of the English language. Our ancestors lived very different lives and influence our speech in more ways than we realise. English has lived with many cultures and evidence of their time together has made their way into our daily vocabulary. And we’re only just scraping the surface.
The English language’s ability to adopt foreign words or phrases from other languages is one of its unique traits. Who knows what new words generations will be using in a few hundred years!
Harper, D 2016, Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 13 March 2016, < http://www.etymonline.com>
2016 A History of Shampoo: A Culmination of Personal Cleanliness, accessed 13 March 2016 <http://www.randomhistory.com/2008/07/19_shampoo.html>
Coles, P 2013, Hosts, Guests, and Parasites, accessed 13 March 2016 <https://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/hosts-guests-and-parasites>
Kellerman S & O’Conner P, 2015, Mortgage interest, accessed 13 March 2016<http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/06/mortgage-interest.html>
Kroulek, A 2014, 10 Surprising Words the English Language Borrowed, K International, accessed 13 March 2016 <http://www.k-international.com/blog/10-surprising-words-the-english-language-borrowed/>
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