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You Know These 10 Foreign Words Without Even Realizing It

We’re willing to bet that you know more foreign words than you think, even if English is the only language you speak. Here’s why... Thousands of words, belonging to languages from across the globe, often hide under the guise of ordinary English words. Such words as lemon, chowder, and prairie, for example, are all borrowed from foreign languages. So technically, they’re loan words that happened to be assimilated by English speakers.
In this article, we’ll show you 10 interesting cases of loan words most of us use every day and treat as ordinary English words. It is a story of how all the languages of the world are interconnected.

1. Lemon

English Borrowings Lemon
The word for the sour yellow citrus fruit sounds something like ‘lemon in so many different languages: it is limone in Italian, лимон (which sounds as "limon") in Russian and lemoni in Greek. Linguists believe that English borrowed the word lemon from Old French, but the origins of the words go way back to the generic term for citrus fruit in Old Persian - līmūn

2. Klutz

English Borrowings clumsy person klutz
The word klutz is a way to say that someone is clumsy and prone to break things, and it’s just a fun word to pronounce. People started using this word in English in the 1930s, borrowing it from Yiddish, the language developed by Jewish people who lived in Central and Eastern Europe. In Yiddish, the word klots initially meant “a wooden block”. 

3. Canyon

English Borrowings Canyon
A canyon is a deep gorge created by a river. This word is derived from the Spanish word cañon, which means "a pipe or tube". It is believed that the Mexican Spanish speakers thought that canyons, like pipes, had a narrow stream of water flowing through them, and this resemblance coined the actual term.
In the 19th century, the Westward expansion of American settlers to the once Spanish west came with the adoption of many Spanish words, including canyon and cowboy, into English.

4. Avatar

English Borrowings Avatar
Today, we think of the word avatar as an online term for one’s profile on social media or online in general, but in reality, the word predates the invention of the internet by millennia. English speakers borrowed the word avatar from the Sanskrit avatāra (“descent”). In Hinduism, an avatar is “the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form”.

5. Chowder

English Borrowings Chowder
Who doesn’t enjoy a nice and warm bowl of chowder from time to time? In reality, though, the name for this yummy thick soup comes from a misnomer, as it is derived from the French word chaudière, which means “kettle or cauldron”. We have to thank New Englanders for this fortunate mistake, as it seems that they were the ones to adopt the term in 1751 from Breton fishermen.

6. Tsunami

English Borrowings Tsunami
Did you know that until 1896, English didn’t have a word for this disastrous wave? The term tsunami first appeared in the National Geographic magazine, in an issue describing a huge wave that struck Japan that year. Instead of inventing an English word for the natural disaster, the writers of the magazine just decided to transliterate the genuine Japanese term for a harbor wave, which sounds exactly like “tsunami”.

7. Tattoo

English Borrowings Tattoo
We have to thank Polynesian island nations for giving us this word. Even today, you can see the resemblance between the English word tattoo and the Samoan tatau or the Marquesan tatu. Both of these Polynesian words refer to the same practice of body art we recognize as a tattoo, a practice that had actually existed in these cultures for over 2000 years. Linguists attributed the British explorer James Cook for adopting the word tattoo in English. 

8. Prairie

English Borrowings Prairie
It’s no secret that English has borrowed a significant part of its vocabulary from French. No matter how quintessentially American we believe the word prairie is, it too belongs to that list of French borrowings. In French, the word prairie has a wider meaning, though - it refers to a meadow and not just the vast grasslands of the Mississippi valley. 

9. Mosquito

English Borrowings Mosquito
Do you know what a diminutive is? To put it simply, it’s a way to make an existing word smaller and cuter, like when we say piglet instead of a baby pig, or droplet instead of a tiny drop. Other languages have these words, too. For example, in 16th-century Spanish, the word for fly was mosca, but a small fly was a mosquito. And that’s exactly where English got its name for these annoying blood-sucking insects.

10. Sherbet

English Borrowings Sherbet
It only makes sense that this frozen fruity dessert and the name for it come from the Middle East, one of the hottest regions in the world, where people certainly had to learn a thing or two about refreshing foods and drinks. The term sherbet first appeared in English in the early 17th century, and it is derived from the Turkish şerbet or Persian šerbet, which means ‘a frozen drink’.
Share these fun loan words and their origins with others!
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