English is notorious for pickpocketing words from other languages and passing them off as its own, and the number of words “borrowed” from other European languages easily reaches the thousands.
But it doesn’t stop there. Over centuries of exploration and conquest, English was able to plunder words from languages around the globe and, in many cases, continues to use words from languages that have long since gone extinct. The Americas are no exception. Here are ten “English” words that actually originate from indigenous American languages.
Indigenous Languages of the Americas
Before European conquest, over 1,000 known languages were spoken in what are today the Americas. In the centuries since Columbus first set sail, many of these languages have been forcefully wiped out or fallen into disuse, while others remain widely spoken in indigenous communities. It is estimated that 25 million people continue to speak one of the Americas’ indigenous languages today—including Quechua, spoken by over 7 million people, and languages like Chocho, spoken by fewer than 1,000 people in Mexico.
Whether extinct or thriving, many of these languages are leading undercover lives through their contributions to what are today the more widely used languages in the region.
Melting Pot: Adopting Loan Words
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It goes without saying that if one lands in a new place, spots a plant or animal never seen before and says, “Hey, what’s that?” and someone responds, “It’s a Blimberhopper,” well, that’s what it is. But how and why foreign words are adopted into other languages is not always so clear-cut.
And while it’s perhaps no surprise to discover indigenous words peppering Spanish, the language of the culture that ultimately conquered most of Central and South America, there are hundreds of examples of these indigenous languages infiltrating English as well.
With the caveat that etymology is not an exact science, modern linguists have theoretically traced all ten of the following “English” words to origins in the indigenous languages of the Americas.
Quechua, The People’s Language
Quechua, or Runasimi in Quechua itself, was spoken long before the Inca empire came to rule over present-day Peru and parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Chile. However, it was designated the official language of the empire (which, despite its strength and size, lasted just shy of 100 years), and its continued use was encouraged by Spanish colonizers through the mid-18th century. Today it is the most common indigenous language family in South America and remains an official language in both Peru and Bolivia.
English loves a good euphemism and often employs “nicer” sounding words for objectively gross things, so it’s no surprise English has a special word for seabird and bat excrement used for fertilizer: guano. What may be a surprise is that guano was actually borrowed from Quechua by the Spanish colonizers and ultimately adopted by the English as well.
Huanu, the Quechua word for dung, was used to refer to the excrement-derived fertilizer from seabirds that populated the coast of what is today Peru and was highly prized and protected by the Incas during their reign.
What could be more American than beef jerky, a stick of dried meat you carry with you as you round up cattle on the prairie?
Not only was the method of drying meat to create what we know today as jerky originally learned from the Incas, but the word itself also came from their language too. Ch’arki is a Quechua word meaning “dried flesh,” and this simple method of preserving llama and alpaca meat took advantage of the region’s mountain climate: meat was salted and left to dry in the hot sun during the day and then frozen in the cold nights.
Ch’arki became charqui in Spanish and ultimately Anglicized as “jerky.”
Given the rain, cold weather, and obvious need for wearable, water-resistant wraps in England and other parts of Europe, it’s a bit shocking that English had no word for such a garment and had to adopt someone else’s.
There are two main theories regarding the etymology of the word “poncho,” but both take us to South America, the birthplace of everyone’s favorite wearable blanket.
Some etymologists trace “poncho” back to the Quechua word punchu, used for a woven blanket-style garment with an opening in the middle for the wearer’s head. Archaeologists have found evidence of woven ponchos in the Andes dating back thousands of years. Others believe the word comes from the Araucanian word pontho, meaning “woolen fabric,” used by the Mapuche in what is today Chile.
Learning from Montezuma’s Nahuatl
Before the Spanish conquest, the people of the Aztec empire spoke Nahuatl, a language, in various forms, still spoken by over a million people in what is today Central Mexico. Most linguists studying the language believe it actually originated in what is the present-day southwestern United States and spread south. So perhaps its ultimate northward trajectory via adopting Nahuatl words into English is just a return to its roots?
A hearty bowl of chili on a cold winter’s day is so delicious you probably never stopped to consider where the name came from.
Chili is taken directly from the Nahuatl word chilli, used for what we now call peppers. (Some linguists like to specify that chilli specifically referred to hot peppers, but as that’s the only type of the fruit native to the Americas, it’s rather redundant, akin to saying “pepper peppers.”) Though the exact origins of chili are unclear, it appears to have evolved from a variety of stews being consumed in what is now Mexico and Texas in the 18th and 19th centuries, in which chilis, often powdered, were the key ingredient. Today’s chili often lacks the heat and spice that inspired its name, so one would be forgiven for not making the connection.
When one thinks of Mexican food, chocolate may not necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind. However, present-day Mexico is where Spanish conquistadors first encountered the delicious treat that soon spread around the world. The chocolatey sweets we consume today are dramatically different from the cold, bitter spiced cocoa beverage the conquistadors discovered Montezuma enjoying, but though the food has evolved, the name has remained more or less the same.
Xococ means bitter in Nahuatl, and atl means water or drink, so the name is a literal description of what the Aztecs were consuming at the time. The word xocolatl may look quite different from chocolate, but when you factor in the way the letter “x” is pronounced in Nahuatl—a sound similar to the English “sh,”—it’s not such a stretch to see how xocolatl transformed into chocolate over the centuries.
Much like the object in question, this word origin explanation is a little shaky but still worth exploring. The first use of the word “shack” to describe a rickety hut is dated to the late 19th century in American English, but a similar word was being used in Mexican Spanish, jacal, derived from the Nahuatl word for wooden hut: xacatli. We already know the Nahuatl “x” sound is similar to the English “sh,” and the Spanish “j” is pronounced as a guttural “h” sound, so it’s quite possible “shack” is an Anglicization of one or both of these words.
The Many Languages of the Maya
Many different languages, dozens of which are still spoken today primarily in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, were spoken within the Maya civilization, which itself comprised various cultures and peoples living in Mesoamerica over a period of thousands of years. Mayan is the widely used umbrella term for all of the languages originating in this region and civilization, which include K’iche’, Yucatec, and Mam, just to name a few.
Though the decline of the Mayan civilization predated the arrival of the Spanish by several hundred years, smaller empires and cities were still thriving when the conquistadors arrived in the Yucatan, and loan words from their languages to Spanish—and English—were readily adopted.
If you live on the East Coast of the United States, you know when hurricane season is, but between boarding up the windows and loading up sandbags, the origin of the word is probably the last thing on your mind. Not only is the word “hurricane” borrowed from the Maya, it was one of their gods.
Hunraqan—one-legged in Mayan K’iche’—or Huracan was the god of wind, storms, and fire. When angered, he unleashed the violent storms the region is famous for, and they were named in his honor. (The Taíno people of the Caribbean also had a goddess who conjured up wild storms, or juracan, leading etymologists to suggest one culture adopted the word from the other). Hurricanes didn’t exist where the Spanish had come from, so they adopted the indigenous word, which was ultimately Anglicized as “hurricane.”
With angry gods unleashing punishing winds and torrential rains, the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica no doubt needed to relax—perhaps with the aid of one of the Americas most famous native plants, tobacco.
Tobacco was used for thousands of years throughout the Americas before the conquest. In Mayan civilization, it was used as an offering to the gods as well as medicinally and recreationally.
While evidence of tobacco pipes and flasks in the pre-Columbian Americas has been discovered, the Maya were also documented to have rolled tobacco leaves for smoking and had a word for it—sicar. This word was adopted by the Spanish as cigarro and ultimately by English speakers as “cigar.” In fact, some of the most expensive cigars available today are part of a collection of 600-year-old Mayan sicars discovered in Guatemala in 2012, which you can claim as your own for just a half million U.S. dollars!
First Contact: Words from the Taíno
Inca, Aztec, and Maya are perhaps the “big three” civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, but numerous smaller or more dispersed indigenous groups and tribes thrived in the region before the conquest, and their languages were also ripe for the picking, particularly the earliest group to be encountered by Columbus, the Taíno.
The Taíno were a subset of the Arawak indigenous peoples who occupied the Caribbean island known today as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica. Unfortunately, the Taíno were exploited to the point of near extinction by Columbus and his men within just a few decades. Yet their influence remains in some of our most everyday items—you can thank the Taíno for hot summer days spent swinging lazily in a hammock and even your favorite summer cookout tradition.
Given the many millennia that humans have been cooking meat over fires, if one takes a guess at the origin of the word “barbeque,” it would likely seem much older than it is. When the first Europeans stumbled upon the island of Hispaniola, they discovered the indigenous inhabitants roasting meat in a unique way: on a rack of green wood over a fire. The word used for this wooden rack was barbakoa, though it was not specific to cooking; it was also the word used for the wooden racks they would sleep on.
The Spanish conquistadors adopted both the word and the cooking style, lumped them together as one, and spread it throughout the Americas. The meats used and precise cooking methods evolved over time and place, but the word for roasting meat on a rack over a fire remained more or less the same: barbacoa in Spanish and, ultimately, “barbeque” in English.
Potatoes are known to have originated in what is today Peru, so why is the English word for them derived from an indigenous Caribbean language?
The first “potato” to reach Europe was what we now call sweet potato, which the natives of Haiti called batata and is actually unrelated to the many varieties of potato originating in Peru. When Peruvian potatoes made their way to Europe a few years later, they were similar enough in cultivation (both grow underground) and appearance that Europeans simply used the name they already had for starchy tubers. The Taíno batata became patata in European Spanish and ultimately “potato” in English.
In South America, potatoes were and continue to be called papas, the Quechua word for this native species, while the sweet potato is called camote in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and several other countries, a word that derives from Nahuatl.