English is a Thief!
Did you know that many of the words you learn in English are not English words at all?
Did you know that the English language is a thief?
The English language, by nature, is a thief. It has, throughout its long, illustrious, beautiful, wonderful life, robbed, stolen, borrowed and adopted words and expressions from other languages to make them their own, through trade and conquest. Conquest, either as the conqueror in the case of Irish, Indian and Malay words, or as the conquered through Latin, Germanic and French. Trade, through hundreds of years of buying and selling with people from other nations in weird and wonderful goods and ideas.
These acquisitions of language are one of the many reasons English is a difficult language to learn, but it is also a reason why English can be the most beautiful and descriptive language today.
"English is a work in progress. Have fun with it" - Jonathan Culver
English, as we know it, was not an invented language, it is like a cake with the ingredients being the words and cultures of many peoples. The Romans brought us words. The Angles and the Saxons brought us words. The Vikings and the Normans then brought their owns words and these words mixed with the Celtic languages and the languages previous, to become this fully rounded language today. The peoples of the British Isles stole and adopted other words from the cultures they colonialised and came into contact with adding even more flavour to the English language cake.
The timeline below shows more detail about when these conquests took place and how words were added.
The English language, through its evolution has some surprising statistics on the origins of words spoken today in English.
The diagram below shows you how these languages have flavoured the English language cake today; 29% from Latin, 29% from French, 26% from Germanic languages, and 6% each respectively from Greek and other languages.
Let's take a look at 30 words, which I am sure you are familiar with, but you may be unfamiliar of their origin. These words have their beginnings in other nations and cultures, but today are firmly established as words of English, which as a learner are words you need to know and learn.
Let's take a look at 30 words that are used everyday, but have roots in other cultures, not the British Isles.
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” - Angela Carter
kowtow - this comes from China, and it is the anglicised form of two Chinese words - ke, which means knock, + tou, head. So, ketou in Chinese literally means to knock ones head and is used to describe a very deep bow, as an act of submission. Now we use it to mean being excessively subservient.
tea - this comes to English from Malay Chinese. The word té is related to the Mandarin word cha for tea, and it appeared in English in the mid-17th century when the tea trade started.
typhoon - again this is an anglicised Chinese word tai-fung, "big wind" via Portuguese from Arabic tufan in the late 16th century.
pyjamas (BrE), pajamas (AmE) - from Urdu words pay, 'leg' + jama 'clothing'.
bungalow - this is a single-storey house getting its name from the homes built for English settlers in Bengal, India. It is from the Hindi word Bangla which means 'belonging to Bengal'.
anonymous - this is of Greek origin, literally meaning nameless (an - 'without' + onoma 'name')
loot - again we have a word from the Indian sub-continent. The Hindi word “lut” which means to rob gave rise to the English word loot, the ill-gotten gains after a robbery.
cookie - this is a popular word in the USA referring to any sweet biscuit, and it stems from the Dutch word koekje for small cake. A cookie in the USA is a biscuit in British English, which ties in to the next word
biscuit - from the Old French biscuit, derived from Latin bis 'twice' + coctus 'cooked', because they were baked then dried out in a slow oven, hence twice cooked. Biscuit refers to a cookie in British English, but in American English it refers a larger soft, buttermilk bun with a crispy texture on the outside, similar to a scone.
lemon - the word lemon has a very circuitous route into the English language. It started out in Arabic as limun, meaning any fruits of this kind, then found its way into French limon, and then into English, where the spelling is changed to the lemon we know today.
orange - again this citrus fruit has had a round-the-world trip into English. It started as narang in Persia, changing to naranj in Arabic, where it then wandered into French usage as "pomme d'orenge", then bouncing into English as orange.
Now no burger would be a burger without this next word.
ketchup - this is of Chinese origin, ke-chiap, which was a brine of pickled fish or shellfish. I don't know if I would to put the pickled fish brine on my burger, but thankfully it is not an option these days.
dollar - the dollar, legal currency in many countries, has come into usage from early Flemish or Low German daler, from German T(h)aler, short for Joachimsthaler, a coin from the silver mine of Joachimsthal(‘Joachim's valley’). The term was then applied to a coin used in the Spanish American colonies, also widely used in the British North American colonies. It was adopted as the US monetary unit in the late 18th century.
alarm - we all have one and it is generally used as a rallying call to wake us from our slumber, which is a very appropriate use for it as it literally means "to arms". It came into late Middle English as an exclamation "to arms!", from the French alarme, from Italian allarme, from all arme! - to arms! The next time your alarm goes off, think of all those ancient soldiers that had to run to fetch their weapons and arm themselves in preparation of attack. All we have to do is attack our day, which at times is difficult enough to do!
sofa - after a long day, there is something very special about throwing oneself down into a soft, comfortable sofa and dozing off for a short while. Sheer bliss! Have you ever asked yourself "Where does the word sofa comes from?" Well, it comes to English, through French in the 17th century, based on the Arabic word suffa, which was a room in the north east corner of a mosque which the prophet Mohammed ordered be covered in palm leaves. It was used a s a room for his followers to sit, relax, eat and talk with him.
tsunami - this word came into widespread English use after the natural disaster in the Indian Ocean in 2004. It comes from Japanese and means big wave in the harbor. Tsu means harbor and nami is big wave. It is used to describe an unusually large sea wave produced by a sea quake or undersea volcanic eruption.
ranch - here we have a word that entered English via Spanish spoken in America. The Spanish word is rancho, meaning farm, cattle farm. Today it is generally used in American English to describe a cattle farm.
breeze - this gentle wind, typically cooling on a hot summer’s day appeared in English in the mid-16th century, brize, meaning a north or north eastern wind. Comes from the Dutch bries.
patio - this feature was popular with houses in the 1970s, being a sign of upwardly mobile middle-classes. It originates in Spanish, meaning inner courtyard and entered American English in the mid 19th century to mean " a roofless inner courtyard", but entered main stream usage in the early to mid 20th century. Patios as a construction feature adding a house became de rigeur in the 1960s and 1970s.
admiral - this word is another word from the Arabic word "amir", commander. The suffix -al comes also from Arabic, meaning of the, and then through Latin into Old French became admiral denoting a commander of a group of ships.
glitch - this is a relatively modern word and comes from the 1960s in the USA. It came out of their "space program", and it means a malfunction or a hitch in equipment being used. No-one really knows how it came about, but it describes the situation perfectly.
tycoon - this is literally the same as the Japanese word "taikun" meaning great lord. Therefore the taikun in Japan was the big cheese and it moved into English to mean a wealthy, powerful person in business or industry.
cargo - this and the word car come from the same place. They come from the Latin word "carrus" - a wheeled vehicle - and this in ancient times was used to transport people and goods to and from market. The verb to load "carcare" comes from the latin word carrus, which through time, via Spanish and French, became cargo in English today.
shampoo - we all need to wash our hair, but did you ever stop to think where the word shampoo actually comes from. Where does it come from? Well, let me tell you. Shampoo is another word taken from the English colonial times in India. It is from the Hindi word "campo" meaning to press or massage, as you do when you are washing your hair.
zombie - it is a word that conjures up images of mindless monsters devouring people wherever they go with no abatement. And from the original meaning of the word, the mindless bit is true. Zombie is a word first recorded in Louisiana, sometime between 1810 and 1820. It is derived from the Haitian Creole zonbi, which in turn comes from a Bantu language meaning “god” or “fetish”. It entered English through Voodoo culture meaning “a mute and will-less body, robbed of its soul and given the semblance of life by a supernatural force, usually for manual labor or some evil purpose”.
safari - an expedition to hunt or observe animals in their natural habitat, comes from the Arabic safara, to travel.
cafeteria - is a restaurant where customers serve themselves from a counter and pay before eating, but its origin is a little more interesting. A cafeteria in Latin Spanish means "coffee shop", and entered into American English in the mid 19th century, then crossed into British English to mean a self-service restaurant. Now many companies have cafeterias for their employees to get some food at meal times.
tornado - this is a violent and destructive weather system resulting in a funnel-like cyclonic wind. They are most common in America, and the word tornado is a related to the Spanish word tronado, through letter switching. This in turn comes from the Latin word “tonare” to thunder.
zero - is another word coming from Arabic, cipher, appearing in Middle English circa 1350.
chocolate - everyone’s favorite confection, but did you know that it first appeared in Europe as a drink, which helps explain its origin. Chocolate was brought to Europe by the Spanish from their colonies in South America, more precisely, the Aztecs. It is believed that the chocolate comes from the Nahuatl words “xococ” - bitter, sour and “atl” - for water, hence a bitter, sour water, not the mouth watering sweet confection we all know today.
Thanks to trade, conquest and conquering, English is one of the most descriptive, varied languages in the world today. It is the language of the internet, of news and media, of finance and of business.
Yes, learning English can be difficult and raise many challenges through synonyms, homonyms, homophones etc, but it probably the most beautifully descriptive language, because of those reasons.
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Jonathan is the founder and driving force behind Accent on Training, moving Accent on Training from being solely an English language provider to a business skills provider and digital marketing agency.