10 Surprising Words The English Language Borrowed

We English speakers like to pretend that English is the center of the universe, but do you know how many of the words we use every day were borrowed from other languages?

According to Dictionary.com, if you open up an English dictionary, approximately 80 percent of the words inside were originally borrowed from another language. Latin and French are the most important sources of loanwords. Latin is the largest source of loanwords overall, but French is the most significant source of new loanwords.

Some loanwords are easy to spot, like “entrepreneur.” Others have become so embedded in the English language that you might be surprised to learn they were borrowed. Here are some examples:

1. Leg : If English hadn’t borrowed the Old Norse “leggr,” we might still call our lower limbs “shanks.”

2. Skin: “Skin” comes from Old Norse, too. The Anglo-Saxon synonym is “hide.”

3. Sky, from an Old Norse word meaning “cloud,” replaced the Anglo-Saxon “heofon” around 1300.

4. They, their and them: These pronouns come from the Old Norse “þeir,”  and replace older the older plural pronouns hie, hire and heora.

5. Science comes to English directly from Old French. French, in turn, borrowed the word from the Latin “scientia,” meaning “knowledge.”

6. War: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “war” comes from the Old North French word “werre.” Prior to this borrowing, “Old English had many poetic words for “war” (wig, guð, heaðo, hild, all common in personal names), but the usual one to translate Latin bellum was gewin “struggle, strife.”

7. Person: “Person” is another English word with both Latin and French origins. It comes from the Old French “persone,” which is itself a French borrowing of the Latin “persona.” 

8. Cockroach: This ubiquitous pest gets its English name from the Spanish “cucaracha.” Cucaracha became “cockroach” through a process called “folk etymology,” where people began to replace the elements of the unfamiliar Spanish word with bits of English that sounded more familiar.

9. Very: The blandest adjective ever comes to us from the Old French “verai,” which meant “”true, truthful, sincere; right, just, legal.”

10. Alcohol is actually an Arabic word.  So, how did we end up borrowing the term for liquor from a culture that doesn’t even drink?  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the old Arabic word for eyeliner, “al-kuhul.” In those days, “kohl” was made of finely powdered antimony produced by the chemical process of sublimation:

“Powdered cosmetic” was the earliest sense in English; definition broadened 1670s to “any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything,” including liquids.”

Which English words were you surprised to find out had been borrowed? Let us know in the comments!

7 replies
  1. Vic Duan
    Vic Duan says:

    Interesting even “very” was borrowed from French. While it seems natural Latin language families fuse with each other heavily, similar situations happen to two languages of different systems. For example, Shafa in Chinese originates from English and bonsai in English from Japanese. The languages are amazing, as always.

  2. Jonathan Galton
    Jonathan Galton says:

    Very (ha!) interesting article. A lot of common culinary words have quite interesting histories. For example sugar, pepper, orange, rice and (possibly) lemon all come, ultimately, from Sanskrit (via Persian, Arabic and Greek). Tea is originally a Chinese word that came to use through Dutch, while Coffee comes from Arabic.


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