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10 English Words That Come From Native American Languages

 The majority of people are aware that many common geographical names throughout the United States, and even the names of several states themselves, have been borrowed from various Native American languages. For instance, the name of the state of Michigan comes from the Ottawa word mishigami, which means "large water" or "large lake". But these are hardly the only linguistic borrowings from Native American languages, it's only the beginning of a huge pool of words we think of as "ordinary" English words that actually have Native American etymologies.
These include words for inanimate objects, such as the word kayak or poncho, but also foods, e.g. potato and barbecue, as well as animals, e.g. opossum and skunk. Below, we've listed 10 more of these common English words and their Native American origins.

1. Squash

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Squash
The word 'squash' sounds so quintessentially English, it's difficult to believe it's actually borrowed from a different language, but it's true, at least when it comes to the name for the veggies we enjoy carving every Halloween. Keep in mind that the verb to squash, as in to smash something is, in fact, Middle English or perhaps French in origin. But the noun denoting the vegetable squash is a shortening of the word askútasquash by the Narragansett tribe of what is today the territory of New England.

2. Beef jerky

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Beef jerky
Beef jerky is certainly a delicious snack in the US and all over the world, but both this type of meat preparation and the word that denotes it is actually from South America. The word jerky and the food both originated in the Quechua language in the Peruvian Andes from the word ch’arki, which is a type of dried and salted meat commonly made of llama or horse meat. Literally, it can be translated from Quechua "as dried salted meat".

3. Hammock

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Hammock
Once again, we have Native Americans to thank both for the invention and the name of the hammock. This word ]arrived in English from Spanish, where it is written as hamaca, and this is exactly how it used to be in the original language it was borrowed from. Hamaca is a word from the extinct Taíno language that was once spoken in the Caribbean. It means “stretch of cloth”.

4. Raccoon

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Raccoon
Raccoons are adorable little critters, sure, but it seems like internet culture is hardly the first to point out their craftiness and possibly their unusual habit of washing their hands. Actually, it's in the name itself. The word raccoon was derived from the Powhatan word aroughcun or alternatively rahaugcum which means "animal that scratches with its hands."

5. Shack

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Shack

The word shack likely stems from the word xahcalli, which means “grass hut” in Nahuatl, a family of languages and dialects from Mesoamerica. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs, and now you know that you, too, speak a bit of Nahuatl yourself.

6. Cigar

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Cigars
The same extinct Caribbean language that blessed us with the hammock, the Taino language, also introduced us to all things tobacco-related, such as the word “tobacco” itself, which comes from the word tabako that refers to a roll of tobacco leaves. As for the word cigar, it most likely comes from the Mayan word sikar, which is literally translated as "to smoke rolled tobacco leaves".

7. Moose

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Moose
Moose are the emblematic animals of Canada, but the name of this proud animal actually comes from the Eastern Abenaki word mos, or alternatively, the Narragansett word moòs, which can either be translated as “he who strips off”, referring to the moose stripping off tree bark when feeding, or “twig eater”. 

8. Hurricane

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Hurricane
Image Source: NASA Johnson/ Flickr

The Mayan “god of the storm” was named Hunraken, which eventually came to mean any evil deity throughout Central America and the Caribbean. Spanish explorers simplified the spelling of the god's name to huracán, and started using it to denote the weather phenomenon that we now know as a hurricane. The word is estimated to have entered the English language in the 16th century.

9. Savanna

English Borrowings from Native American Languages Savanna
When we hear of the word savanna, most of us will think of the African continent. Alas, the word has little to do with Africa, as its origins can be traced to the Arawakan language family, the same language family the Natives who met Columbus spoke when he had first landed in the Bahamas. The original Taíno word for savanna was sabana

10. Hickory

English Borrowings from Native American Languages hickory
The nursery rhyme goes "Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock..." Little did we know, but we have the Algonquian language family, the Powhatan language, to be specific, to thank for the rhyme, as the word hickory comes from the Powhatan word pocohiquara. Literally, the word can be translated as hickory nut milk.
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