Skip to main content

English: The Word Thief

English has borrowed heavily from other languages.

English has borrowed heavily from other languages.

A Loaned Language?

The roots of the English language are buried deep in Germanic and Romance tongues. However, there’s a vigorous debate among experts on which is dominant, although the majority opinion comes down on the side of Germanic sources. This is borne out by no less an authority than The Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that “Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots.”

Multilingual Phrases

The Germanic origin applies to grammar, syntax, and structure. When it comes to individual words, the English have proved to be accomplished thieves.

“The tycoon made a huge palaver because his brogues didn’t fit.” Most English speakers can figure out where the alien words are in this sentence. The italics are an obvious hint.

“Tycoon” is borrowed from the Japanese word taikun meaning a great prince.

“Palaver” is a talk or speech and comes from the Portuguese word, palavra.

“Brogues” is a Celtic word meaning a “rough, stout shoe.”

Here’s another one:

“The mosquito bit the ballet dancer as she ate chowder at the deli.”

“Mosquito” is a Spanish word for “little fly.”

“Ballet” is an entirely French word that can trace its origin to the Latin ballare, meaning dance.

The French also gave us “chowder,” whether willingly or unwillingly, is not recorded. It comes from chaudière, a pot.

“Deli,” of course, is a contraction of delicatessen, a German word created from delicat fine or fancy and essen food.

Colonial India

Through the British East India Company, the British took control of India’s commerce and, essentially, its administration in the 18th century. The sub-continent became a British colony in 1858.

The primary reason for the British conquest was to gain access to the country’s resources. This naked commercialism was masked by the claim that the empire and its administrators had the noble motive of bringing “civilization” to the Indian people. So, it is something of an irony to note that the Indus culture of 4,000 years ago had a written language, while the Brits didn’t get around to developing this until the 9th century CE.

As the British lifted jewels, spices, and textiles out of the sub-continent, they also took words. Why go to the bother of inventing new words when you can borrow local ones and mash them up a bit?

So herewith are some common English words that trace their origin to India:

Verandah comes from Hindi via Portuguese. The British simply tacked an “h” onto the original word, although some spell it without the “h.”

The real thing, or pukka example; a verandah in India.

The real thing, or pukka example; a verandah in India.

While we have the housing file open, bungalow comes from the Hindi word bangla, which describes houses built in the Bengali style.

Jangal is a Hindi word meaning a wild wasteland. The British transformed it into jungle.

Commonly, Indian men wear loose-fitting trousers tied at the waist with a drawstring called payajamas. European settlers adopted the style for sleepwear.

There are many other Hindi words that have been handed over to English speakers with a little modification:

  • Shampoo
  • Bangles
  • Loot
  • Juggernaut
  • Chutney

The African Contribution to English

Just as they did in India and elsewhere, Europeans conquered large swaths of Africa and left with resources and words.

Some of the African words incorporated into English have to do with food.

An integral ingredient in gumbo is okra, and the name of the dish comes from the word for okra used in Angola ki ngombo.

Yams are not sweet potatoes as they are frequently mislabelled to be in our supermarkets. Yams come from West Africa, and they get their name from the Fulani word “to eat,” which is nyami. The word crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade, and in Jamaican patois nyam means “to eat.”

Many animals unique to the African landscape have names in English that come from local origins. Chimpanzee comes from the Tshiluba language of Central Africa calls the ape kiili chimpenze. Impala is almost the same word in Zulu. Gnu comes from the Bushmen of southern Africa word !nu. And zebra seems to originate in central Africa.

So, how come elephants are elephants? Somehow, we ignored some lovely African words and scurried around in Ancient Greek and Latin, looking for a word for the majestic animals.

Why didn’t we go with one of these local words for elephant?

  • Tembo―Swahili
  • Indlovu―Zulu
  • Giwa―Hausa
  • Maroodiga―Somali
  • Erin―Yoruba

Multilingual Theft

  • “I’m going on a kayak trip to my brother’s igloo, so I’ll need a warm parka/anorak.” (Inuit).
  • “It’s hard to waltz with a rucksack.” (German).
  • “I need a bamboo caddy without which I might run amok in my gingham sarong.” (Malay).
  • “This avocado with chili sauce and tomato is disgusting. Feed it to the coyotes.” (Aztec).
  • “There’s an admiral sitting on a sequin sofa in the alcove over there. He’s thinking of alchemy when he ought to be worrying about assassins.” (Arabic).
  • “The entrepreneur ate croissants of a mediocre genre. She should have had the hors d’oeuvres instead.” (French).
  • “I’m going to have a siesta on the patio before going to the plaza.” (Spanish).

Bonus Factoids

  • Since 1635, the Académie Française has been the guardian of the French language seeking to stop the intrusion of other tongues. So, it was something of a surprise to be eating in a restaurant in Paris to see on the menu “Ouvert du lundi au vendredi (open Monday to Friday) mais jamais le weekend (but never on the weekend).
  • The Nigerian academic Dr. Farooq Kperogi says that only about 30 percent of the words commonly used by English speakers can be traced to the language’s Anglo-Saxon roots. The rest are “borrowed” from other tongues, “leading some to call the English language a ‘loaned language.’ ”
  • Of the most common so-called Anglo-Saxon profanities used in English, none are of Anglo-Saxon origin.
  • “We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” James D. Nicoll.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 17, 2019:

Interesting and informative. I enjoyed the vocabulary lesson on word origins, perhaps theft. Thank you.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 15, 2019:

Thanks for that interesting information. It sounds like the ever closer union, which our soon to be ex-European partners are keen to promote in the EU, does not cover language.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on February 15, 2019:

Fascinating, thanks so much!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 15, 2019:

Hi Liz. The French General Commission of Terminology and Neology is hard at work fighting back the incursions of foreign words.

You’ll happy to know that “le binge drinking” is now “beuverie express.”

“Hashtag” has become “mot-dièse.”

“Email” is “courrier electronique” expressed in its shortened form as “courriel.”

Liz Westwood from UK on February 15, 2019:

I find the etymology of words in the English language fascinating. At one time I heard that the French government was trying to prevent the influx of foreign words into the French language. I'm not sure it worked. I think the English language is richer for the foreign additions.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 14, 2019:

Hi, Twilight Lawns, thanks for the input. Many languages exist that borrowed from the others. But as Rupert, as pointed out, the English language is the worst word thief.

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on February 14, 2019:

Love the song. Love the Hub.

In our household, the following languages are used, have been used, or were known in some of our youths: Arabic, Baluch, Bosnia, Brahui, Croatian, Dutch, English, Filipino, French, Gambian, German, Hindi, Hindko, Italian, Marathi, Nigerian, Pashtun, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, Welsh and Yugoslavian.

I was brought up in India, so I am aware of the word pilfering that was done under the Raj.



Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 13, 2019:

Hello, Rupert, from the story, I see the English Language as the best international English. In my country Nigeria, "palava" is any talk that brings trouble, though borrowed from the Portuguese. Thank you.