“Wow, English has a lot of words!”
Have you ever thought that before?
It may be true, but did you know that many English words actually come from other languages?
That’s right—over time, English speakers have “stolen” words from other languages and added them to English.
Those words are often called “loanwords,” especially if they were added to English recently. (The word “loan” means to give something to someone else temporarily.)
In fact, there are probably some words in English that came from your native language!
And by learning the rest of the words in this list, you can even impress your English-speaking friends. The next time you hear one, tell your friends where the word originally came from!
All right, are you ready? Let’s explore 45 common words that English “took” from other languages.
45 Common English Words That Came from Other Languages
In some ways, English, French and German are almost like three brothers and sisters that grew up together. Each language influenced the other two languages in some ways, but one of the biggest influences on English was French.
In fact, from the 9th century until the 14th century, a form of French was even the “official” language in the courts of England! During those years, the common (non-royal) people spoke an older form of English, while the kings, queens and members of the court spoke French. And to make it more confusing, most documents were written in Latin.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of mixing between those languages. So let’s look at some interesting English words that still “look French.”
One more note: Be sure to listen to the pronunciations for these originally-French words. Many are probably said differently than you might expect!
This is a form of dance that is popular throughout much of the world. Because this dancing style developed in France, many of the words that people use to talk about ballet also come from French. Non-ballet dancers would probably only know the words “ballerina” and “tutu” from that list, though.
It’s important to note how the word “ballet” is pronounced. Here you don’t pronounce the “t” at the end. Instead, the second syllable should sound like “lay,” with the same vowel sound as the letter “a.”
That’s an interesting thing about some of these French loanwords: Some are pronounced like an English word, but others are pronounced more like in French.
My niece and nephew are in ballet class, so I watched their 5-hour ballet performance on Saturday. It was pretty long.
In English, this is the name for a small, usually informal restaurant. It often has small tables, and sometimes there are also tables outside. It is written both with the accent mark (“café”) and without it (“cafe”) in English.
“Cafe” comes from the French word for “coffee,” but it’s also very similar to other words related to coffee in many other languages. Usually, cafes do serve coffee. But if a place only serves coffee (and not any food), then it’s normally called a “coffee shop.”
Also note that there’s a similar word, “cafeteria,” that causes some confusion. Generally, a cafeteria is like a small restaurant that is for a specific group of people. You’ll often find cafeterias at schools or large companies. In those cases, the cafeterias are for the people who study or work in the building.
I’ve only got about 20 minutes for lunch, so I’ll just stop at a cafe for a quick sandwich.
Some of the most common (and best!) loanwords are related to food. That’s because many foods are closely connected to a particular culture, and other languages often don’t always have words for foods from other cultures.
A croissant is a type of pastry or bread that is light and flaky. “Flaky” means the croissant leaves lots of little crumbs on your plate when you eat it.
A similar type of bread in English is a “crescent roll.” “Roll” is the name of a small piece of bread.
Tina really loves to make croissants because they taste better than other types of bread.
This is definitely a word that you should hear pronounced, since it can be a little tricky even for native English speakers.
An entrepreneur is a person who starts their own company. Other common forms of the word include “entrepreneurship” (a noun) or “entrepreneurial” (an adjective).
Elon Musk, the man who started SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the world.
5. Faux pas
This phrase describes making a social mistake. Listen to the pronunciation here, since it has several silent letters, including the “x” and the “s.”
If you make a faux pas, then the mistake usually isn’t very big and doesn’t hurt anyone physically, but it can make people uncomfortable.
I committed a pretty big faux pas last night. I kept trying to offer Maria beers, but I completely forgot that she stopped drinking alcohol three years ago!
In French, this word means “kind” or “style.” Listen to its pronunciation here.
In English, it’s used to describe a category of something, especially when talking about entertainment. You’ll especially hear people using this word to talk about books, movies and music.
Roy likes many types of music, but his favorite genre is heavy metal.
7. Hors d’oeuvre
These are small bits of food that are served at special events, usually parties. They’re very similar to appetizers, but appetizers are usually served before a larger meal.
Definitely listen to the pronunciation of this one. In fact, the spelling is also very difficult. Most native English speakers generally only use it when speaking. I had to check the spelling three times when writing it just now!
We were invited to Tina and Roy’s engagement party. We expected a big meal, but there were only hors d’oeuvres. That was okay, though, since we weren’t that hungry.
This is used to describe women’s underwear or sleepwear that is usually sexy or special in some way. It also has a tricky pronunciation.
These days, before some women get married, their friends give them a “lingerie shower.” That’s when the woman’s friends all get together and give her lingerie as a wedding gift.
In French, this means “rebirth,” but in English it is often used to describe the historical period between 1300 and 1600 when art and science developed a lot.
It can also be used to describe any time a person, company or country starts becoming popular again after a difficult period of time. As a funny note, some entertainment writers even described the “renaissance” of the actor Matthew McConaughey as a “Mcconaissance.”
I don’t know much about art, but I do know that Michelangelo and Raphael were two of the most famous artists from the Renaissance.
In English, this word is used to describe either a place where people plan to meet, or the action of meeting a person at a specific time.
We’re in a new city, and I’m sure you all want to explore it a bit. It’s 2:00 now, so let’s rendezvous back here at 6:00. Then we’ll go to dinner.
If you want to learn more English words that come from French, check out this interesting post. The explanations are for people who are learning French, but the article is in English and it still has some excellent and important French loanwords.
Like what I just gave you for French, here is an article of 33 German words used in English. The post is written for English speakers who are learning German. It also explains a bit of the historical connection between English and German. And if you want even more, there is also this article with 76 more German loanwords.
Below I’ll also include links to the pronunciation of these German words. In general, though, they’re not as difficult to pronounce as the French words.
A delicatessen (abbreviated “deli”) is an informal restaurant where you can get sandwiches, coffee and other small foods. This comes from the German word Delikatessen, which means “fine/fancy foods,” but in English it just describes the place where you can buy those foods.
Some of the most famous delis are in New York, including Katz’s Delicatessen. The pictures on their website can give you an idea of the types of (gigantic) sandwiches that are typical at a deli.
Delicatessens used to be more common in New York, but many are going out of business since many people seem to prefer more formal restaurants.
A fest is any kind of party, celebration or festival. In both English and German, it’s commonly used as a suffix (a word part added to the end of a word), and the most common one is Oktoberfest. The “official” Oktoberfest happens every year in Munich, Germany, but many other cities have their own Oktoberfests.
We visited the Oktoberfest in Munich, but it was crazy. There were so many people, and all of them were drunk!
Believe it or not, English speakers use this word! In German, this word means “health.” Especially in the United States, people often say “Gesundheit!” as a response when someone sneezes (others often say “bless you”).
This is probably more common in the US because more German immigrants moved to the US in the last 200 years than to the UK.
When I sneezed, my aunt said “Gesundheit!”
Translated literally, this word means “children’s garden.” It’s a common type of school in many parts of the world. Children often go to a year or two of kindergarten when they’re 5 years old before they start elementary school.
Our daughter is going to turn 5 next year, so we’ve been trying to find a good kindergarten for her.
A waltz is a type of formal dance. The word is also used to describe the type of music that plays during those dances, and it can also be used as a verb to describe the action of dancing this dance.
My friends say that dancing the waltz is easy, but I can’t do it. I’m just not coordinated, and everyone says I have “two left feet.”
A rucksack is another name for a backpack. “Ruck” comes from the German word Rücken (back) and Sack means either “bag” or, as you probably guessed, “sack.”
Alan is going to travel to Europe this summer, but he’s planning on only taking one rucksack. He’ll have to pack carefully if he wants everything to fit!
You may not have ever heard of Yiddish, but it’s a Germanic language that’s especially common among Jewish people with Eastern European roots. Today it’s mostly spoken in Israel, Eastern Europe and some parts of the United States where Jewish families settled.
Because of historical immigration, some Yiddish words may be more common in American English than British English. Also, since it is a Germanic language, many Yiddish words are similar or even the same as German words.
A glitch describes a small problem, but usually it’s a problem that doesn’t make it impossible to finish something.
I planned to go downtown to meet with Betty, but I ran into a glitch: The bus wasn’t running because it was a holiday. So I just took a taxi instead.
My cousin Charlotte is a real klutz. Every time she goes into a souvenir shop, she always seems to break two or three things, and then she has to pay for them!
In Yiddish (and German), this word can mean “play,” but in English it’s used to describe a quick speech or story which has usually been said/told many times. Often the spiel tries to convince you of something.
My uncle Thomas believes a lot of conspiracy theories. When we ate Thanksgiving dinner, he did his whole spiel about how the government is controlled by lizard people!
This is a verb that means to talk with someone in a very friendly way, often to gain some benefit for yourself.
At the meeting, the professors were schmoozing with the president of the club. They want his club to donate money to the university.
Like French, Spanish is another Latin-based language that has influenced English. A lot of this Spanish influence is especially noticeable in American English, so many of these words could be less common in British English.
In Spanish, this word literally means “little war.” In both Spanish and English it can be used to describe an unofficial group of people fighting the government. In English, it’s most commonly used as an adjective, in phrases like “guerrilla warfare” or “guerrilla marketing.”
Note that in Spanish, the “ll” sound is different than in English. As a result, in English this word sounds basically the same as “gorilla,” the animal.
The guerrilla fighters took control of the capital of the country, which gave them control of the government.
This word describes a person who is very strong or masculine. It can also be used to describe a person who is arrogant about his manhood. It’s also been used in the name of a professional wrestler and a popular disco song from the 1970s.
Peter is a real macho guy, but that’s annoying sometimes. He says that “real men don’t cry,” but I think he’s wrong.
In English, “patio” generally describes an area outside a house which often has a table and chairs, but no roof.
It was very hot today, so we decided to go out to the patio to drink a cold glass of lemonade. There are some trees there, too, so the sun wasn’t as bad.
A plaza describes a public open area in a city, which can sometimes be called a “square.”
“Plaza” is also used in the names of many shopping malls, corporate building areas or other large open areas. If you’re a native Spanish speaker, notice that the pronunciation in English has a vibrated “z” sound, not a soft “s.”
Victoria needed to buy some Christmas presents for her friends, so she went downtown to the new shopping plaza to check out some of the stores that were recently opened.
We had a birthday party for our 3-year-old boy, but we thought he was probably too young for a piñata. We thought all the kids would get hit in the head with the stick.
A siesta is another name for “nap,” but it’s generally a nap that one takes in the middle of the day, especially after eating or while taking a break from work.
People often take siestas in hot countries because the middle of the day is when the heat is most intense. So it’s a good time to stay inside and sleep!
Wow, since I ate that big plate of spaghetti, now I’m feeling super tired. I think I’ll take a quick siesta before I get back to work.
You probably know what karaoke is. It’s when you sing along with the tune of a popular song while reading the lyrics from a screen. There are karaoke bars in many countries, including the US and the UK, but it’s most commonly associated with Japan.
Mitch really likes singing karaoke, even though he doesn’t have an amazing voice. But that doesn’t matter—the important thing is to have fun with friends!
Like karaoke, you probably recognize this word. It describes a popular martial art that originated in Japan. There, the word “karate” means “empty hand,” since you don’t need any special equipment or weapons to do it.
Lisa has a black belt in karate, so you’d better not try to steal her things.
This word means “spy” in Japanese, but in English it’s used to describe a person who can move and attack silently, without being seen. People also associate ninjas with fighters who wear masks and all black clothing, even though that may not be historically true.
You should try Karl’s cookies—they’re delicious! Karl is a real baking ninja!
If you want to try origami, it’s very easy to start. You just need some small pieces of paper. But if you want to become an expert, it could take years of practice.
This is a gigantic (very large) sea wave that is usually caused by an earthquake.
Those recent tsunamis were terrible, but at least they made people more aware of the dangers of tsunamis.
From Native American Languages
When Europeans arrived to America, they encountered millions of natives. The native groups had their own languages, and many of these influenced English.
Many of the Native American words were for place names, and others were adapted and changed to make them easier to pronounce in English.
Since these words are from Native American languages, they obviously are more common in places that had more contact with indigenous people. As a result, these words are usually more common in American English than British English.
This came to English after passing through Spanish, but originally it was xocolatl in the Nahuatl language of modern-day Mexico.
If you don’t know what chocolate is, then I feel very sad for you.
Depending on who you ask, you will probably hear different ideas about what a moccasin is. But at least everyone will agree that it’s a type of informal shoe.
I don’t like the cold winter weather in general, but I do enjoy wearing my warm moccasins when I’m inside.
In English, “Chinese” is used to refer to the different dialects of the languages in China and Taiwan, even though “Mandarin” is the one with the most speakers.
If you look a bit closer, you’ll find that English has actually taken some pretty cool words from Chinese!
34. Dim sum
The word originally meant “touch your heart,” but now it’s just used to describe a meal in a restaurant where the guests have many choices of small dishes of food. Many of the foods are steamed in bamboo baskets, and there are also other dishes like soup and fried bread.
If you’ve never tried dim sum, try some! It’s delicious!
Tony invited us to eat dim sum and we had a wonderful time! The food was delicious, and the little pieces were actually easy to eat with chopsticks.
I was really gung-ho to eat dim sum, but when we got to the Chinese restaurant it was closed for a holiday! We were all really disappointed.
36. Kung fu
Like “karate,” this is probably a word that you already recognize since it’s common in many languages around the world.
Kung fu is another popular style of martial arts. In kung fu, generally fighters only use their hands and feet, but not weapons. It has been featured in countless movies, TV shows, books and songs in English.
I’m tired of bullies beating me up. I’m going to learn kung fu so I can defend myself if they attack me again!
In Chinese, “dou” means “bean” and “fu” means “rotten” or “sour.” It sounds gross when you put it that way, but it can actually be pretty tasty! If you’ve not tried it, you should.
I know you’re vegetarian, but this restaurant has lots of great options! For many of the dishes you can just substitute the meat with tofu or another vegetarian option.
The origin of this word is actually complicated, but some say it was reinforced by the Chinese word “taifeng,” which means “big wind.” There were also some possible influences from other languages like Greek, Arabic and Portuguese!
In 2014 Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines and caused a lot of damage. It was one of the biggest typhoons ever recorded.
39. Yin and yang
Mary is the yin to Peter’s yang. They’re complete opposites, but they have a happy marriage. I guess it’s true that “opposites attract”!
Bonus Words from Six Other Languages
English has taken at least a few words from nearly every major language, and it would be impossible to list them all here. So for this section, I just wanted to highlight some of my favorites from a few additional languages.
40. Babushka (from Russian)
So if a girl or woman wears a scarf to keep her head warm, sometimes people jokingly call her a “babushka.”
I saw an old lady wearing a babushka walking down the street. She was carrying many shopping bags and having trouble walking, so I offered to help her carry her bags.
41. Bossa nova (from Portuguese)
There are many Portuguese loanwords in English. Bossa nova, which means “new wave” in Brazilian Portuguese, is one of my favorites.
It describes a kind of relaxing music from Brazil. There are some excellent bossa nova musicans, but there are also some “interpretations” of modern songs in a bossa nova style that aren’t as great.
You may think that you don’t know any bossa nova songs, but you almost certainly have heard a version of the “The Girl From Ipanema.” It’s a great bossa nova song, but it’s also the stereotypical example of “elevator music.”
42. Moped (from Swedish)
It’s basically a bicycle with a motor. Many people call scooters or small motorcycles “mopeds,” but that’s not technically correct.
When I got my driver’s license, I really wanted a car. But cars are too expensive, so I bought a moped from my friend Ronnie instead.
43. Paparazzi (from Italian)
“Paparazzi” is actually the plural form of the Italian word paparazzo. It’s used in English to describe a photographer or a group of photographers who take pictures of celebrities. Then they sell the photos to magazines or newspapers.
They’re not a very popular profession, as they take away celebrities’ privacy, but they were the subject of a popular song a few years ago.
When Princess Diana died in 1999, many people believed that the paparazzi were responsible for her death. Those photographers were constantly following her everywhere.
44. Sheikh (from Arabic)
A sheikh is a ruler or leader of a group of people in Arab cultures. It’s used in English as a title for rulers in some countries, instead of words like “king” or “president.”
For example, the current leader of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, is a sheikh.
When meeting sheikhs, many foreign leaders hold hands with them as a sign of respect or friendship.
45. Taekwondo (from Korean)
After writing this article, I now want to learn a martial art. I’d like to learn taekwondo, but I want to learn how to use swords and other weapons, so it might not be the best option for me.
Wow! That was a lot of words, but I’m sure that you’ll have no trouble learning them. In fact, you probably already recognized some of them.
Until the next time we rendezvous, I hope you’ll be gung-ho for learning new English vocabulary! Adios, amigos!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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