Throughout history, English speakers have adopted foreign words whenever they need a new way to describe an object or idea, which explains the unique variety and richness of English vocabulary. Today, English contains words and phrases from about 350 different languages. Some can be easily traced — ballet from French, sushi from Japanese — but others have murkier origins. Here are a few you’ve probably used without any idea of how they got into the dictionary.
The term for this North American landscape comes from France. “Prairie” is derived from the French word for “meadow” or “grassland.” Even earlier, in the 12th century CE, the Old French praerie and Middle English prayere described meadows or pasturelands, but these words were lost from the languages until “prairie” emerged in English around 1682. By the mid-19th century, American writers like William Cullen Bryant were referring to the continent’s fertile grasslands as “prairies.”
Today, going on safari usually means a trip to view Africa’s wildlife in its native habitats. The word comes from the Swahili term for “journey” or “expedition,” which is itself derived from the Arabic word safar (“journey”). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “safari” entered the English language in 1859 thanks to British explorer Richard Burton, who spent many years traveling in East Africa and used the term in a paper for the Royal Geographical Society.
“Loot” can be a noun meaning goods seized from an enemy or a verb describing the act of plundering. Deriving from the Hindi lut and Sanskrit loptram or lotram (“booty” or “stolen property”), the term was likely picked up by British East India Company traders based in India and was first used in English around 1788. Using the word “loot” as an English slang term for “money” emerged in the 1940s, according to the OED.
“Zombie,” usually meaning a reanimated corpse, may have emerged in West Africa from the Kikongo word zumbi (“fetish” or “good-luck spirit”) and Kimbundu word nzambi (“creator god”), the OED reports. Some etymologists suggest “zombie” comes from the Lousiana Creole and Haitian Creole word zonbi, which itself comes from African Bantu languages. Enslaved Africans likely brought the words to the Caribbean and American South, where similar words referred to a deity in Voodoo beliefs and entered English usage as “zombie” in the late 18th century.
“Glitch” is one of the many words in English likely borrowed from Yiddish. Originally defined as “a slip” or “small mistake,” “glitch” became popular among radio broadcasters in the 1940s as a term meaning low-frequency interference in a signal or a DJ’s mispronunciation. But it entered popular usage in 1962 when astronaut John Glenn wrote about a sudden but minor spike in voltage in an electrical circuit in his book Into Orbit: “Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was 'glitch.'”
The origins of “buckaroo” can be clearly traced to the Spanish word for “cowboy” (vaquero), and today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary still has “buckaroo” defined as a “mounted cattle-ranch hand” or “a rodeo performer.” The familiar spelling emerged around 1907. Between the 1850s and the early 20th century, the OED reports, “buckaroo” was spelled “bakhara,” “buckayro,” and “buckhara.”
Kòu tóu is a phrase in Mandarin and Cantonese meaning a deep bow of respect and submission in which one’s head touches the floor. British travel writers described this Chinese custom and used the Anglicized phrase koo-too or ko-tou, in the early 19th century, according to the OED. But later writers imposed a negative connotation on “kowtow” in the 1820s and 1830s, and described it as an obsequious display of servility, perhaps in response to foreign diplomats’ reluctance to pay homage to the Chinese emperor.
America’s favorite French fry topper began as a popular Asian fish sauce, variously spelled kê-chiap, kôe-tsap, or kôe-chiap in the Hokkein language, and kecap or kicap in Malay, the OED claims. European traders brought this piquant condiment back home in the late 17th century and tried to replicate its flavor using umami-rich mushrooms, walnuts, or anchovies. In 1817, a British cookbook published several recipes for “catsup,” and included one with a tomato base. Today’s tomato, vinegar, and sugar concoction became popular in the early 20th century.
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