Well I Never… Discover the Origin of English Words

Declan Mulkeen

15 Jun 2016

While many native English speakers may not be good at foreign languages, the English language has certainly been good at assimilating words from other languages and making these words its own. Discover the origin of English words – many will surprise you. 

Origin of English Words: The List is Endless

1. French

Cul-de-sac: 1738, as an anatomical term, from French cul-de-sac, literally “bottom of a sack,” from Latin culus “bottom, backside, fundament.”

  • Coup d’état

When a country has had its leadership forcibly removed from office, we are just as likely to describe this event as a  coup d’état as we are to describe it as an overthrow of that government. To most English speakers, coup d’état sounds natural, is more concise and is understood by nearly everyone, even if they don’t understand French.

  • Ambiance

Comes from the French language and describes a particular mood or atmosphere of an environment or surrounding influence.

  • Jury

Comes from Old French juree, originally from jurer (meaning to swear), 14th Century. It is today part of the legal English vocabulary.

  • Blasé

Unimpressed with or indifferent to something one has experienced or seen it so often before. From French blasé, past participle of blaser “to satiate” (17c.), which is of unknown origin.

  • Cul-de-sac

1738, as an anatomical term, from French cul-de-sac, literally “bottom of a sack,” from Latin culus “bottom, backside, fundament.”

2. Spanish

Although not historically tied to Spain or Latin America, the English language has also absorbed several Spanish terms.

  • Breeze – from brisa (“cold northeast wind”)
  • Mosquito – literally means “little fly”
  • Patio – indoor courtyard
  • guerrilla – “fighter in an irregular, independent armed force,” 1809, from Spanish guerrilla “body of skirmishers, skirmishing warfare,” literally “little war,” diminutive of guerra “war,” (source http://www.etymonline.com)
  • Junta, rose to prominence in the 1970s after a series of military coups occurred in Latin America. We now use the term junta in English even when we are describing a military dictatorship in parts of the world that do not speak Spanish.  Interestingly, some English speakers pronounce the ‘j’ with an ‘h’ sound similar to Spanish speakers whereas others have anglicised their pronunciation to what they see, thus pronouncing the ‘j’ as in English – to both the horror and the amusement of Spanish speakers.

3. Russian

As history continues to unfold, undoubtedly there will be more words with foreign origins absorbed into the English language

Russian words have also been incorporated into the English language. Those who are old enough to remember the politics of the 1980s will certainly be familiar with the terms following terms – both used extensively in the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Union:

  • glastnost 
  • perestroika

As history continues to unfold, undoubtedly there will be more words with foreign origins absorbed into the English language. Perhaps we will someday have a language tsar or a member of the intelligentsia determine which terms will survive.

Both of these Russian terms need no explanation in English. Regardless, our future vocabulary will almost certainly be more permanent than today’s slang.

English words with Foreign Origins

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