100 FOREIGN WORDS IN ENGLISH DEFINED AND EXPLAINED

The English language has grown and developed from other languages. If you have looked at my other website (the link is on the Home Page) you will know that English owes a lot to German and French in particular. Over the centuries, new words have been added. They come from many other languages. Sometimes, the spelling stays the same; sometimes, the spelling changes.

Here is a list of about 100 words which have come into English from over 20 other languages. There are some common words, such as hammock, and some unusual words. such as samovar. The definitions are summaries of information in several different dictionaries. For more information and for other meanings, consult a good dictionary.

In this list, the name of the original language is in bold type. The original non-English words are shown in italics. The centuries and years in the list show the approximate period during which the words came into English.

aardvark

A strange looking animal found in sub-Saharan Africa, which eats termites and ants. The name literally means "earth pig". Early 1800s. Afrikaans, a South   African language closely related to Flemish and Dutch.

alchemy

A type of magical "science" (though it was not a real science) practised in Europe from about the 14th century. Adapted from old Greek words.

alcove

A small recessed area of a larger room. Late 1600s. From Arabic al-qubba which means "the arch".

algebra

A branch of Mathematics. Mid-1500s. From Arabic al-jabr, meaning "the reduction".

alleluia

A shout of praise to God. 1300s. Sometimes hallelujah. From Hebrew halălūyāh meaning "praise to Jehovah"

alphabet

A set of letters used to write a language. Early 1500s. From Greek alpha + beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, A and B.

amok

Adverb or adjective. Wildly, madly, out of control. Mid 1600s. From Malay amok, meaning a murderous frenzy.

angst

Acute unsettling anxiety, perhaps mixed with fear, guilt, or uncertainty about the purpose of life. Mid-20th century. A German word.

apartheid

The policy and practice of racial segregation in South Africa. 1947. An Afrikaans word meaning "apart-hood", the state of condition of being kept apart..

apricot

A fruit. Late 1500s. Its origins lie in Latin praecox, an early ripening peach, and Arabic al-birqūq, apricot.

avatar

An incarnation of a Hindu god in human, animal or superhuman form. It now has other uses in English, including a small symbol used to represent oneself in a computer game or web blog. Late 1700s. From Sanskrit avatarah, which means "descent".

bamboo

The long, hard, woody stems of a bamboo plant. Late 1500s. From Malay bambu.

baobab

An African tree with a very thick trunk. Mid 1600s. From bahobab. which is probably from an African native language. In Australia, a similar tree is known as a boab.

barramundi

A large edible Australian fish. 1864. From an Australian Aboriginal word.

bedlam

A state of great disorder and confusion. In past times, it also referred to a "mad house", a lunatic asylum. 1522. The common name for the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, London, Bedlam was the Middle English word for Bethlehem, which comes from Arabic Bayt Lahm, “House of Meat” and Hebrew Bet Lehem, “House of Bread”.

billabong

A stagnant pool of water or a pool formed where a river branches off. 1861. From an Australian Aboriginal word.

bonsai

A dwarfed form of a tree, grown in a pot. 1900. A Japanese word meaning "tray planting".

boomerang

A curved throwing stick, used as a weapon, which turns in flight and returns to the thrower. 1825. An Australian Aboriginal word.

budgerigar

A small Australian bird of the parrot family. Popularly known as a budgie. 1840. An Australian Aboriginal word.

bunyip

A mythical monster which is said to live in swampy places in Australia. An Australian Aboriginal word.

camel

A type of humped ruminant animal that lives in desert regions of Asia and Africa and also Australia since the 19th century. The word has been used since before the 12th century. From various source words including Hebrew ga-mal.

canary

A type of small bird in the finch family, known for its beautiful song. Named in the late 1500s. From Old Spanish canario.

cashew

A type of nut. About 1600. From the Portuguese word caju from a Tupi native American word akaju, for the cashew tree growing in North America,

cassowary

A very large flightless bird found in Australia and Papua New Guinea. 1611. From Malay kesuari, from an Indonesian islands language.

caucus

A closed meeting, particularly of key members of a political party. Mid 1700s. Origin uncertain but it might have come from a North American native word for "advisor".

cherub

Popularly denotes a sweet, innocent, young child. Originally an angel in Hebrew mythology. 13th century. From Hebrew kerubh. In English, the plural can be either cherubs or cherubim.

chic

Fashionable, stylishly elegant. Mid-1800s. A French word for "smartness".

chimpanzee

An intelligent small ape which lives in central Africa. 1738. From an African language word chimpenzi.

chocolate

A drink or a confection made from chocolate, which is made from ground cacao seeds. Early 1600s. From native American words.

cider

The American and now general spelling of cyder. An alcoholic drink made from apple juice. 13th century. From Hebrew shēkhār,

cinnamon

The aromatic bark of the cinnamon tree found in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. 14th century. From Greek kinnamon and Hebrew qinnāmōn.

cliché

A hackneyed or trite word or phrase which has been used so often that it has lost its real meaning or just become jargon. Late 1800s. A French word.

cockatoo

One of several different birds of the parrot family found in Australasia. 1634. From Malay kakatua].

cocoa

A drink made from the powder of ground roasted cacao beans. 1730. From Spanish cacao.

coffee

A drink made from ground roasted coffee beans. Late 1500s. From Arabic qahwa

commando

A member of a special military group trained for hit-and-run raids in enemy territory. 1839. From Afrikaans kommando.

cosmonaut

A person who is trained to travel in spacecraft. The Russian equivalent of astronaut. 1959. From Russian kosmonavt.

elixir

A sweet flavoured liquid. In myth, a liquid or drink that has magical properties. 14th century. Perhaps from Arabic eliksir.

galah

A type of Australian cockatoo. Also used in a derogatory way for a person who isn't very clever at working things out. Mid-1800s. From an Australian Aboriginal word gilaa.

gauze

Light cloth with an open weave, used in clothing and draperies, also as a medical dressing. Mid 1500s. From Middle French gaze.

gong

A disk-shaped percussion instrument used in music. Late 1600s. From a Malay word.

goulash

A meat stew seasoned with paprika. Mid-1800s. The same word is also used as slang for "medal". From Hungarian gulyáshús.

guru

In Hinduism and Buddhism, a personal religious teacher or leader. It is now also used in English to denote a recognised leader in a specialist field. Early 1600s. From a Sanskrit adjective guru meaning "venerable".

hammock

A hanging bed made of canvas and rope. Early 1600s. From Spanish hamaca from a native American word.

horde

A huge multitude. Not be to be confused with hoard. Mid-1500s. From Ukrainian, Russian and Turkic words.

hurricane

A severe tropical cyclone. Mid-1500s. From Spanish huracán from native American hurakán.

igloo

An Inuit house usually built of blocks of frozen snow. Mid-1800s. From Inuit iglu.

joey

A baby animal, most often used to refer to a young kangaroo. Early 1800s. Australian, origin not known for certain.

jubilee

The celebration of a special anniversary. 14th century. From Hebrew yōbhēl, ram's horn, jubilee.

judo

A Japanese sport developed from jujitsu that uses rapid movement to throw an opponent. Late 1800s. From Japanese gentleness + art.

kaftan

An ankle-length cloak or dress with long sleeves and a sash. Worn by men in the Middle East. Late 1500s. From Persian qaftān.

kangaroo

A type of Australian marsupial animal. Late 1700s. From an Australian Aboriginal word gaŋurru.

kayak

A small canoe made by Eskimos from animal skins on a lightweight frame. Mid-1700s. From Inuit qayaq.

ketchup

A thick spicy sauce made from tomatoes. Late 1600s. From Malay kĕchap meaning fish sauce

kimono

A type of loose Japanese robe with wide sleeves. Late 1800s. From Japanese words.

kiosk

A small covered stall used for selling things such as newspapers, tickets, etc. Also a pavilion in a garden. Early 1600s. From Persian kūshk.

kitsch

Art in bad taste, or something decorative that appeals to popular taste but is not really artistic or of good quality. Early 1900s. A German word.

koala

A type of marsupial animal native to Australia, Incorrectly called a koala bear; it is not a bear. Around 1800. From Australian Aboriginal words.

kookaburra

A type of Australian native bird known for its very distinctive "laughing" call. Early 1800s. From Australian Aboriginal gugubarra.

lychee

A type of Chinese fruit with a very thin shell and juicy sweet flesh. Late 1500s. From Chinese lìzhī.

magazine

A periodical publication. The same word has several other uses related to storage. Late 1500s. From Arabic makhzan.

mammoth

Noun: A very large elephant-like extinct animal. Adjective: Enormous. Early 1700s. From Russian mamont.

mattress

A large thick pad used alone for sleeping on or placed on the top of a bed. 1300s. From Arabic matrah, place where something is thrown.

moccasin

A type of soft leather shoe. Early 1600s. From native American mockasin.

mosque

A Muslim place of worship and prayer. Early 1700s From Arabic masjid, temple,

opossum & possum

A marsupial animal native to southern North America and northern South America. Early 1600s. From native American words. In Australia, similar animals are called possums.

paprika

A red powdered seasoning for food, made from dried sweet peppers. Mid-1800s. From Hungarian, Croatian and Serbian words which come from the Latin word for pepper.

pogrom

The organised persecution of an ethnic group, particularly Jews. Not to be confused with the word programme, program. 1903. From Yiddish from Russian.

potato

A type of vegetable with edible tubers. Mid-1500s. From Spanish batata from a native American language.

résumé

A summary, particularly of a person's career or achievements. It must have acute accents over each letter e, like this é. Without the accents, it is "resume" which means "start again". Early 1800s. A French word.

sabbath

The weekly day of rest and religious devotion. Sunday for most Christians. Saturday for Jews and some Christians. Friday for Muslims. Before the 1300s. From Hebrew shabbāth, meaning "rest".

sabre, saber

A type of sword. Late 1600s. Via various European languages, from Hungarian szablya.

sago

Powdered starch from some sago palms, used in cooking. Late 1500s. From Malay sagu.

samovar

A metal urn with a spigot (plug) at its base, used to boil water for tea. Early 1800s. From Russian samo- self + varit to boil.

sarong

A loose skirt made of a strip of material wrapped around the body, worn by people in the South Pacific. Early 1800s. From a Malay word.

sherbet

In North America, the name given to various types of refreshing non-alcoholic drinks. In Britain, an effervescent powder eaten by itself or used to make drinks. In Australia, a sorbet. Early 1600s. From Arabic sharba, drink.

silk

The continuous very fine thread produced by some insect larvae; the fabric made from this thread. Before the 12th century. From Greek serikos, silken.

soy

A brown, salty sauce made by fermenting soy-beans, soya beans. Late 1600s. From Japanese shoyu.

springbok

A type of gazelle in South Africa. Late 1700s. From Afrikaans words for "a jumping male goat".

steppe

Vast treeless plains in Russia and Siberia. Late 1600s. From Russian step.

taipan

A very venomous snake found in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Early 1930s. From Australian Aboriginal dhayban.

tea

The leaf of a tea bush which is dried and use to make tea for drinking. Mid-1600s. From Chinese , Malay te.

tobacco

The leaves of the tobacco plant, dried and prepared for smoking. Mid-1500s. From Spanish tabaco from a native American word.

tokay

A type of grape grown in Hungary to make a sweet wine of the same name. Late 1600s. From the Hungarian place-name Tokaj.

tomato

A type of fruit used as a vegetable. Early 1600s. Via Spanish from native American tamatl.

trek

A long and difficult journey. In South Africa in the past, by ox wagon. Early 1800s. From Afrikaans trecken, to pull.

tsetse, tsetse fly

A blood-sucking fly in Africa, which carries disease such as sleeping sickness. Mid-1800s. Via Afrikaans from African native language.

turkey

A type of large fowl, native to North America, which can be domesticated and used as food. Mid-1500s. It was called a turkey in error because people confused it with another bird from the country of Turkey.

tycoon

A very wealthy and powerful business-person. Mid-1800s. From Japanese taikun., "great lord".

typhoon

A cyclone occurring in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Late 1700s. From Greek, Chinese and also Arabic words for a violent storm.

vodka

A type of alcoholic drink Early 1800s. From Russian voda.

voodoo

A magical religious cult mainly in the Caribbean. Mid-1800s. From African words such as Ghanaian vodu..

wallaby

A type of marsupial animal like a kangaroo native to Australia. Late 1700s from Australian Aboriginal words.

yoga

A Hindu system or discipline of physical, mental and spiritual exercises. 19th century. From Sanskrit yoga, union.

yoghurt, yogurt

A semi-solid food made from curdled milk. Mid-1600s. From a Turkish word.

zombie

A dead body that has supposedly been brought back to life. Late 1800s. Haitian Creole from African origins.

 

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