English: The Word Thief

Updated on March 19, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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 that 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 being 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 for 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, 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. | Source

And, 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

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 that 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



  • “The British Raj in India.” Kallie Szczepanski, The Thought Company, January 14, 2019.
  • “Did You Know These 17 Common English Words Were Borrowed from Hindi?” Sanchari Pal, The Better India, June 11, 2016
  • “English, Our English!” Farooq A. Kperogi, The New Black Magazine, September 30, 2010.
  • “Many Food Names in English Come From Africa.” Alice Bryant, Voice of America, February 6, 2018.
  • “Did You Know Many English Words Come from Other Languages? Here Are 45!” Ryan Sitzman, FluentU, undated.
  • “Schott’s Original Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2002.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      15 months ago from The Caribbean

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

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      15 months ago from UK

      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.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      15 months ago from Canada

      Fascinating, thanks so much!

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      15 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      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.”

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      15 months ago from UK

      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.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      15 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      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 profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      15 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      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.



    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      15 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      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.


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