English Borrows from Spanish

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

New World encounters bring new words

by David Johnson

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Renegade, mosquito, mustang, boobyEnglish uses many words with Spanish origins. In fact, some scholars say Spanish has contributed 10,000 words to English.

A Linguistic Fiesta

Many adopted Spanish words are food terms, such as tamale, taco, salsa, cilantro, guacamole, enchilada, oregano, and burrito. They are usually used in their original Spanish forms. Others, such as tuna, which comes from the Spanish atún, are variations of the original.

Other food words are of American Indian origin, but came into English via Spanish. Tomato, for instance, is derived from the Spanish tomate, a corruption of the Nahuatl word tomatl. Chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word xocolatl. Potato comes from papa, meaning white potato in the Inca language, Quechua; and batata, sweet potato in the Taino Indian language of the Caribbean. Banana, on the other hand, entered Spanish from the West African languages of Wolof, Mandingo, and Fulani.

Animal Names

A number of animal words went directly from Indian languages into Spanish and then English. Puma originated in Quechua, while jaguar comes from yaguar, a word of the Guarani who live in what is now Paraguay, and iguana is a modification of iwana, used by the Arawak and Carib of the West Indies.

Riding Through the Desert

When Americans began exploring the Southwest in the early 19th century they encountered an established Mexican culture, which has provided English with many everyday words. Some involve horseback riding, including rodeo, lasso, and lariat, since the horse was a key part of frontier life for both Mexicans and Americans.

Ranch, a common English word today, hails from the Mexican Spanish rancho, meaning ranch, settlement, or meat ration.

Sailing the Spanish Main

Hurricane, tobacco, and hammock came to English from the Caribbean. In the 17th and 18th centuries American and English traders plied the ports of the West Indies and South America. Weather often required extended stays in these ports, acquainting the English speakers with Spanish culture.

In addition, buccaneers in search of treasure sailed "the Spanish Main," the South American mainland from the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela to Panama. It is likely they also acquired many Spanish words now used in English.

Common Words with Spanish Origins

  • Alligator: el lagarto, the lizard
  • Booby: bobo, silly or selfish, from the Latin for stammering, balbus
  • Bronco: meaning wild or rough
  • Cafeteria: cafetería, a coffee shop
  • Cargo: cargar, to load
  • Cigar, Cigarette: cigarro
  • Comrade: camarada, old Spanish for barracks company or roommate
  • Guerrilla: a small raiding party or fighting force
  • Hoosegow: from juzgado, a tribunal or courtroom, past participle of juzgar, to judge
  • Mustang: mestengo or mesteño, a stray animal
  • Patio: courtyard in Spanish
  • Peccadillo: a form of pecado, to sin
  • Renegade: renegado, deserter or outlaw
  • Savvy: saber, to know
  • Tornado: tornar, to turn, tronada, thunderstorm
  • Vamoose: vamos, let's go

Words with the same meaning in both languages include aficionado, armada, barracuda, mosquito, tobacco, and vanilla.

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