According to that old favourite book of mine, The English Language – Grammar, History, Literature by Professor Meiklejohn, printed in 1905, “The words we have received from the Spanish language are not numerous, but they are important”.
How wrong could he be! In 2011 modern English abounds with Spanish-based words, many of them, admittedly, coming to us through American English – largely through Hollywood movies, especially westerns.
But back to Meiklejohn, who says: “In addition to the ill-fated word armada, we have the Spanish for Mr, which is Don (from latin Dominus, a lord), with its female Duenna.
“They gave us also alligator, which is our English way of writing el lagarto, the lizard.
“They also presented us with a large number of words that end in o – such as cargo, desperado, guano, indigo, mosquito, potato, tornado and others. The following is a tolerably full list:-
“Alligator, armada, barricade, bravado, cargo, cigar, cochineal, cork, desperado, don, Eldorado, embargo, filibuster, flotilla, galleon, grandee, grenade, guerrilla, indigo, matador, mosquito, renegade, savannah, sherry, tornado, vanilla.”
I have left out from the list some words since fallen from fashion, such as battledore, duenna, jennet, merino and the many politically incorrect words for different degrees of blackness in people’s skins.
Meiklejohn also lists buffalo, but my dictionary says that’s Italian.
It’s quite a good list and we’ll see some of those words again soon, but Wikipedia does much better and I have referred to this list as well as Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1980) in many instances in compiling this post.
It’s a personal list, leaving out place names and some words I find obscure or just not interesting enough.
First let’s look at some of those words picked out by Meiklejohn, although others may crop up below in different categories.
Britain and Spain, both imperial powers, have always been rivals, from as early as the 14th century, often over new territories, but war was never been declared. Read the history here.
So not surprisingly there are many military words: ARMADA (La armada española, the Spanish naval fleet, which failed to overthrow England’s Elizabeth I in 1588), BARRICADE (barrica =“wooden cask”), EMBARGO (embargar =“to bar”), FLOTILLA (flota =“a fleet”), GALLEON (galleon, from Latin galea), GRENADE (granada = “pomegranate” from Latin granata =“full of seeds”, GUERRILLA (guerra =“war”).
Then there are words for trade goods: CARGO (carga =“load”), CIGAR (cigarro, from Mayan sicar, sic =“tobacco”), CORK (alcorque =“cork sole”, probably via Arabic and ultimately from Latin quercus =“oak”), INDIGO (indico=“Indian”), SHERRY (from the place, Jerez), VANILLA (vainilla, from vaina =“pod”).
I particularly like COCHINEAL, a red dye made from insects from Mexico and the West Indies (coccinilla, from Latin coccinus =“scarlet”). I recall it from childhood cake baking and it’s interesting the Welsh for “red” is similar – coch, presumably straight from the Latin…
Many more foodstuffs have been added to our word store from Spanish since Meiklejohn’s day: CHOCOLATE (from Nahuatl xocolatl =“hot water”), CHORIZO (=“sausage”), CILANTRO (=“coriander”), COCOA (cacao, from Nahuatl cacahuatl), GUACAMOLE (from Nahuatl ahuaca-molli =“avocado sauce”), NACHO (from Ignacio, inventor of the snack), OREGANO (=“marjoram”), PAELLA (from Catalan paella =“saucepan”, from Old French paelle and Latin patella =“pan”), JERKY (charqui, from Quechua ch’arki=“dried flesh”), PINA COLADA (“pineapple strained”), PIMENTO or PIMIENTO (“pepper”), TORTILLA (“little torta”=cake).
Other notable words from Meiklejohn’s list are ELDORADO (“the golden one” – a land or city imagined by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and South America) and FILIBUSTER (filibustero =“buccaneer”, from French filibustier/fribustier from Dutch vrij-buiter=“a freebooter” – boot here meaning “booty or treasure”). Today to filibuster means to obstruct the passing of legislation in Parliament by long speeches and motions.
Meiklejohn didn’t mention some really common words from Spanish such as: CANNIBAL (canibal, from caribal, meaning someone from the Caribbean) and CANOE (canoa, from Haitian canaoua). You may have noticed that quite a few “Spanish” words were originally copied from the languages of the indigenous peoples encountered on their travels.
Then let’s see those words picked up from westerns…
There were the people – AMIGO (“friend”; from Latin amicus), BUCKAROO (vaquero =“cowboy”), CABALLERO (“knight/gentleman”, from caballo =“horse”), DESPERADO (desesperado =“without hope”), RENEGADE (renegado =“turncoat, disowned”).
And there were clothes and equipment – CHAPS (chaparreras =“leg protectors for riding through the CHAPARRAL” (chaparro =small evergreen oak, from Basque txapar), LARIAT (la reata=“strap, rein, or rope” from reatar= “to tie again”), LASSO (lazo=“tie” ultimately from Latin laqueum=“noose, snare”, SOMBRERO (literally “shade maker”), TEN-GALLON HAT (possibly from Spanish tan galan=“how gallant”, or maybe a misunderstanding of galon=“braid”).
And no doubt many cowboys took a SIESTA (“nap”, possibly from Latin sexta=“the sixth hour”) after drinking too much TEQUILA (a strong alcoholic drink made from fermented agave and named after a place).
There were the animals – BRONCO (“coarse”, relating to a wild horse) and MUSTANG (mestengo=“without known master or owner”) and BURRO (“donkey”).
Hopefully they would behave at the RODEO (“round-up”) and VAMOOSE (vamos=“let’s go”) and not STAMPEDE (from estampida), leading to the use of words such as LOCO (“crazy”) and CARAMBA ( “heck”, from carajo=“penis”)!
There were places – the RANCH (rancho=“very small rural community”) with its CORRAL (“pen, yard” from Portuguese curral=“pen”, perhaps ultimately from Afrikaans kraal or Latin currale=“enclosure for vehicles”). And beyond there was the SIERRA (“saw”, from the jagged edge of the mountain range), MESA (=”table” or flat-top mountain) and CANYON (=“pipe, tube, gorge”, ultimately from Latin canna=“reed”.
In Mexican areas there was lots of ADOBE, which originated in Egyptian, meaning “brick”, but came to us through the Spanish and can be used to describe perhaps a HACIENDA (facienda=“estate”) or a PUEBLO (settlement, from Castilian, originally from Latin populus=“people”).
Finally that great western word (and TV series) BONANZA, meaning “prosperity”.
It’s difficult now to be sure where and when some Spanish words came into English, but there are comparatively modern ideas that seem to have come through America. For example MACHO (“brave”, “masculinity”) and NADA (“nothing”) are not even mentioned in my 1980 dictionary. PRONTO (“immediately”) and SAVVY (sabe=“to know”) had made it by that time.
Then there are concepts like TOURIST (perhaps from turista), VIGILANTE (literally “watchman”) and CAFETERIA (from Cuban Spanish “coffee shop”), PLAZA (“public place”), PATIO (“inner courtyard”) and BARBECUE (from barbacoa – the dictionary says this was originally Haitian but Wiki says Chibcha, a language from Colombia).
Although it didn’t make it from the USA to common use in the UK, I also like the idea of the “boy from the BARRIO” (“neighbourhood”, ultimately from an Arab word barri=“wild”).
Going back to Old-World Spanish, rather than American/Mexican Spanish, we find the people were great explorers and adventurers and encountered and named many plants and animals on their travels and the names have come into English, too.
These include ALLIGATOR (el lagarto=“the lizard”), ARMADILLO (“little armoured one”), BARRACUDA (barraco=“overlapping tooth”), COCKROACH (cucaracha), MOSQUITO (“little fly”), TOBACCO (Spanish tabaco=“snuff”, possibly derived from the place “Tobago”), TUNA (Spanish atun, from Arabic, from Latin thunnus, from Greek thynnos).
More often the Spanish took the plant and animal names already given by indigenous peoples:
ABALONE – Spanish abulon, from Ohlone aluan or Rumsen awlun (from California).
AVOCADO – Nahuatl ahuacatl, which also means “testicle” (from Mexico).
BANANA – probably from Wolof (from West Africa), but originally from Arabic ba’nana, meaning “fingers”).
CONDOR – Quechua cuntur (from South America).
COYOTE – Nahuatl coyotl (from Mexico).
IGUANA – Arawak iwana (from West Indies).
There are four “camels” in south America: LLAMA (from Quechua), ALPACA (Aymara allpaka/allpaqa), VICUNA (Quechua wikunna) and GUANACO (Quechua wanaku).
PAPAYA – Spanish japaya from Arawak papaia (from West Indies).
POTATO – Spanish patata from Taino batata, meaning sweet potato (from Caribbean)
PUMA – Quechua (from South America)
TOMATO – Spanish tomate, from Nahuatl xitomatl (from Mexico)
Interestingly we also get from Spanish TORNADO (“twister”) and HURRICANE (huracan, from Caribbean Taino hurakan, related to the Arawak word kulakani=“thunder”)
There are probably many more words from Spanish roots that I haven’t mentioned. But that’s quite enough for now!
If you are interested in the roots of English, also see my blog posts on:
English words from Indian roots
English words from Scandinavian roots
English words from Celtic roots
English words from Latin roots
Lost Anglo-Saxon words