Native American Loan Words

Updated October 7, 2021 | Holly Hartman

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From their earliest contact with traders and explorers, Native Americans borrowed foreign words, often to describe things not previously encountered. In this way, Russian was the source of the Alaskan Yupik word for "cat" and an Athabaskan word for "bullets." Native Canadian groups adopted French terms still in use, and southwestern groups in what is now the U.S. borrowed numerous Spanish terms.

The language exchange went both ways. Today, thousands of place names across North America have Indian origins—as do hundreds of everyday English words.

Many of these "loan words" are nouns from the Algonquian languages that were once widespread along the Atlantic coast. English colonists, encountering unfamiliar plants and animals—among them moose, opossum, and skunk—borrowed Indian terms to name them. Pronunciations generally changed, and sometimes the newcomers shortened words they found difficult; for instance, "pocohiquara" became "hickory." Here are some U.S. English Words with Indian Origins

  • anorak from the Greenlandic Inuit "annoraq"
  • bayou from the Choctaw "bayuk"
  • chipmunk from the Ojibway "ajidamoon," red squirrel
  • hickory from the Virginia Algonquian "pocohiquara"
  • hominy from the Virginia Algonquian "uskatahomen"
  • igloo from the Canadian Inuit "iglu," house
  • kayak from the Alaskan Yupik "qayaq"
  • moccasin from the Virginia Algonquian
  • moose from the Eastern Abenaki "mos"
  • papoose from the Narragansett "papoos," child
  • pecan from the Illinois "pakani"
  • powwow from the Narragansett "powwaw," shaman
  • quahog from the Narragansett "poquauhock"
  • squash from the Narragansett "askutasquash"
  • succotash from the Narragansett "msickquatash," boiled corn
  • tepee from the Sioux "tipi," dwelling
  • toboggan from the Micmac "topaghan"
  • tomahawk from the Virginia Algonquian "tamahaac"
  • totem from the Ojibwa "nindoodem," my totem
  • wampum from the Massachusett "wampumpeag"
  • wigwam from the Eastern Abenaki "wik'wom"


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