THE DIVERSITY OF MY THOUGHTS

A to Z English Words With Surprising Origins

In Funny, History, Languages, Trivias, Unique on November 28, 2008 at 12:00 pm

A to Z English Words Origins

Henry Hitchings, an etymologist and author of The Secret Life of Words (which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Book Prize this week), presents an A-to-Z of his favourite words that have been absorbed into English from other languages. Funny, awesome as well as surprising origins of some common English words we hear everyday.

Check out all the words below:

A is for…


Avocado, which comes from Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs. Their name for it, ahuacatl, also meant ”testicle”. A suggestive name derived from its shape.

B is for…


Bonsai. Although we think the tree-cultivating art is Japanese, it originated in China, literary means tray-planting.

C is for…


Coleslaw. Supposedly eaten in ancient Rome, it comes from the Dutch kool-salade (”cabbage salad”). The name was popularised by English settlers in Dutch North America.

D is for…


Dachshund, a compound of the German Dachs (”badger”) and Hund (”dog”). Originally the breed was known in Germany as Dachs Krieger, or ”badger warrior”.

E is for…


Enthusiasm, which was once a term of disapproval among Puritans for excessive displays of religious fervour. Derived from the Greek entheos, which means ”to be within energy”, suggesting being spiritually ”possessed”.

F is for…


Flamenco, from the Spanish name for a Fleming (i.e. someone from Flanders).

G is for…


Goulash, an invention by Hungarian herdsmen whose name derives from gulyas.

H is for…


Hotchpotch, used in Norman legal jargon to denote property collected and then divided.

I is for…


Intelligentsia, a collective term for the intellectual class which derives from Latin but came to us from Russian.

J is for…


Juggernaut, Sanskrit for a giant carriage used to transport an image of the god Krishna.

K is for…


Kangaroo, from gangurru, the large black male roo in the Guugu Yimidhirr language.

L is for…


Lilac, which comes from the Persian nilak, meaning ”of a bluish shade”.

M is for…


Mandarin. The name of the fruit feels as though it ought to be Chinese, but may well have come from Swedish.

N is for…


Namby-pamby. Nickname of the 18th-century poet Ambrose Phillips, coined by the satirist Henry Careybecause of his sentimental verses

O is for…


Onslaught, from the Dutch aanslag – related to a word in Old High German for a shower.

P is for…


Penguin, a compound of two Welsh words, pen and gwyn, which mean ”head” and ”white” – even though penguins have black heads. It is likely that ‘penguin’ was at one time the name of similar, now extinct bird which had a white patch near its bill.

Q is for…


Quack can be traced to the Dutch kwaksalver, literally someone who hawked ointments.

R is for…


Regatta, from Venetian dialect, it originally signified any kind of contest.

S is for…


Sabotage. Supposed to derive from the tendency of striking workers to damage machinery by throwing shoes into it – sabot being an old French word for a wooden shoe.

T is for…


Tattoo, Captain Cook saw Polynesian islanders marking their skin with dark pigment. Long before that the word signified a signal or drumbeat, a Dutch expression for ‘Close off the tap’, used to recall tippling soldiers.

U is for…


Umbrella, appeared in English as early as 1609 (in a letter by John Donne). In the middle of the 18th century the device was adopted by the philanthropist Jonas Hanway as a protection against the London rain.

V is for…


Vanilla, ”little sheath” in Spanish.

W is for…


Walnut, a modern rendering of the Old English walhnutu (‘foreign nut’), so known because it grew mainly in Italy.

X is for…


Xebec, a little vessel with three masts, from the Arabic shabbak, a small warship.

Y is for…

Yogurt, a mispronunciation of a Turkish word.

Z is for…


Zero, whose immediate source is French or Italian, but its origins are in Arabic – and before that in the Sanskrit word sunya, which meant both ”nothing” and ”desert”.

Images are courtesy of Getty Images and Flickr.

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  1. I have always thought that Bonsai originated from Japan, I was wrong

  2. Very interesting collection of A-Z words with nice illustrations.

    I would challenge the standard derivation of sabotage from Fr sabot = wooden shoe.
    The word was first applied to workers who went on strike but they did not throw shoes. What they did was to treat a workday as if it were the Sabbath … hence, sabotage.

  3. Thanks a lot for the additional info, Izzy. Such inputs will surely help me a lot.

  4. superb

  5. […] is from here). Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)So excited…How to Have Fun With My Family […]

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