When you look closely at it, English is practically a foreign language in and of itself.
You’ll notice that an awful lot of English words that come from other languages!
But that’s just friendly sharing! We all do it.
In all languages, word origins are diverse and varied.
Some word origins are pretty obvious. For instance, it probably will come as no surprise that burro comes from Spanish, as does its beloved sister word, burrito.
Other word origins are less expected, though. While the origins of some words are still hotly debated, the potential origins are intriguing to consider.
Here, we’ll share 50+ foreign words used in the English language that are bound to surprise you!
Why Does English Use So Many Foreign Words?
There are many very logical reasons why languages (including English) borrow words from each other.
For instance, sometimes English will borrow a word from another language in order to describe things for which an English word doesn’t yet exist. This happened a lot when English settlers arrived in the New World. After all, there were countless things that English speakers had never encountered, but which indigenous groups and earlier Spanish explorers had already given names to. Whenever there’s cross-cultural interaction like that, new words are bound to pop up between languages.
Additionally, English often uses foreign words to name culturally specific things, like food. The Italians already gave “pizza” a great name, so when English speakers started enjoying the food, there was no need to change it. Why waste time renaming when you could be eating?
Finally, there’s a long history of languages borrowing words from each other. This has been happening for thousands of years. For whatever reason, some languages just have a particular pull across cultures. It’s not just English that borrows words. Take, for instance, the French word “bistro.” On the surface, it seems quintessentially French. Hearing it probably makes you crave cassoulet. However, the word was actually taken from the Russian word быстро (“fast”), which Russian soldiers would shout in order to get quick service during the 1814 Battle of Paris.
Regardless of how they wound up here, the fact remains that there are quite a few words in the English language that you might have never guessed are actually foreign.
Gifts from the World: Over 50 Surprising Foreign Words Used in English
Within this list you’ll find some of the most unexpectedly foreign words—the sort of words that you would never guess stem from these languages. Go ahead: ask your friends what language they think any word on this list comes from. They’ll probably struggle to answer. To stay on good terms, be sure to offer them a cookie (or a burrito) after the ordeal.
Arabic contributed many words to the English language. Some of these words also passed through other languages before making their way into English. Most notably, Arabic contributed much vocabulary related to math and science.
“Admiral” comes from أمير (pronounced “amyr” and sometimes translated as “emir”), which refers to a leader.
“Alcohol” is derived from the word الكحل (alkahal), which meant “the kohl,” which originally referred to a powder.
“Algebra” comes from الجبر (aljabar), which originally referred to putting together broken parts.
“Average” originally came from عوار (eawar), which referred to damage to goods. Merchant-marine law changed the meaning.
Coming from the word ليمون (leemoon), it passed through French before making its way to English.
“Sofa” likely started as the Arabic word صفّة (sofa) before entering the Turkish language, then the French language, then the English language. That’s quite a journey!
“Zero” comes from the word صفر (sifr), though it passed through Spanish, Italian and French before it entered the English language.
It might not sound Chinese, but there’s a very good explanation for that. “Brainwashing” is actually a literal translation of the Chinese word 洗腦 (xǐ nǎo). It originated in Chinese during the Korean War, referring to the practice of coercion and mind control. It took off in the U.S. soon after.
Ketchup may seem as American as burgers and cookouts, but the word itself may come from the Cantonese word 茄汁 (qié zhī), which means “tomato sauce.”
This drinking toast stems from the Mandarin word 請 (qǐng), which means “please.”
“Typhoon” likely comes from the Cantonese word 颱風 (tái fēng).
French has played a huge influence on the English language, and there are countless French words used in English. This is due, in part, to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. A dialect of French became common among the upper class and was widely used for trade, permanently changing the face of the English language.
Here are some highlights that might surprise you.
While the word originated in Latin, it came to English through Old French.
“Beef” came to English from the Old French word boef. But that’s not the only meat name with French origins! “Mutton,” “veal” and “pork” are all thought to be derived from Old French.
Originally from Latin, the English word “country” likely comes most directly from the Old French word cuntree.
“Dance” likely comes from the Old French verb dancer.
An awful lot of animal names (mythical and otherwise) can be traced back to French, but let’s face facts: “dragon” is the most fun. Other animals who owe their names to French include griffin, phoenix, dolphin, squirrel and more. You can guess which ones are real.
The word “fruit” passed through Old French (as fruges) before making its way to English.
While “liberty” is a popular word in the US, it isn’t an original English word. It started in Latin before passing through Old French.
The origins of “music” go back to Greek and Latin, but before hitting the English language, it passed through Old French as musique.
The Latin word populus transformed into the Anglo-Norman French word poeple, which later became the English word “people.” My, how far we’ve come.
Yup, even a simple word like “very” came through French. It likely originated with the Old French word verai, which meant “true.”
Not only are English and German related languages, there are also many German words used in English. These can relate back to German innovations and/or the wave of German immigrants who settled in the U.S. Either way, German has had an undeniable influence on the English language.
This traditional American cookout food actually comes from the name of the German city, Hamburg.
The word “Neanderthal” comes from another German place name. Thal used to mean “valley,” though now it’s spelled as Tal. Therefore, Neanderthal refers to the “Neander Valley,” which is where some of the first fossils of Neanderthals were discovered.
This comes from the German word Nichts, meaning “nothing.” So the next time you ask your server to nix the ketchup on your hamburger, you’ve just used two German words and one Chinese word.
Everyone knows the word “dachshund” comes from German, but they’re not the only German dogs on the block. This canine name originally came from the Low German word puddeln, meaning “splash in water.”
Italian words have shaped the English language, particularly in the areas of music and food. Here are a few words you might not have guessed came from Italian.
“Allegro” and most other musical terms like tempo markings came from Italian. In Italian, allegro means “cheerful.”
In English, “alto” often refers to a female singer with a lower voice, though the word actually comes from the Italian word alto, which means “high.”
“Apartment” likely comes from the Italian word appartamento (though it also passed through French before entering the English language).
“Broccoli” comes from the Italian word broccoli, which is the plural of broccolo.
“Cartoon” likely comes from the Italian word cartone, which were full-scale drawings used to prepare for paintings or frescoes.
“Cauliflower” comes from cavolfiore, which literally means “flowering cabbage.”
“Cello” comes from the Italian word violoncello, which is the diminutive of violone, a type of double bass.
“Piano” is a shortening of the Italian word pianoforte.
This one is pretty straightforward. “Soprano” comes directly from the Italian word soprano and has the same meaning between languages.
The word “violin” came to English from the Italian word violino, which is a diminutive of viola (a slightly larger stringed instrument).
Though not as common as ones from many other languages, some Japanese loanwords have made their way into the English language. Here are a couple you might not have guessed.
The Japanese word 班長 (hanchō) refers to a chief or leader in both Japanese and English.
You might use the word “skosh” without even noticing where it came from. It’s used to refer to a small amount and comes from either the Japanese word 少し (sukoshi) or the word すこし (sukoshi), both of which mean “a little.”
“Cashew” is derived from the Portuguese word cajú, which likely came from the now-extinct Tupi language.
“Cobra” is a shortening of cobra de capello, a Portuguese phrase meaning “snake with hood.”
While some may claim “flamingo” has Spanish origins, there’s also an argument that it may have come from Portuguese. The bright pink birds have not yet weighed in on the conflict.
The type of sturgeon comes from the Russian word белуга (beluga), while the type of whale comes from белуха (beluhka). Both ultimately trace back to белый (belee), which means “white.”
“Disinformation” comes from the Russian word дезинформация (dezinformatsiya), which was the name of a KGB propaganda department.
“Mammoth” comes from the Russian word мамонт (mamont), which likely had Siberian roots.
This word for a tribal priest comes from the Russian word шаман (shaman), which likely comes from the Evenki language of Siberia.
A lot of English-language words can be traced back to the Spanish language. This is particularly common with ranching vocabulary. Names for foods, places, animals and weather patterns found in the Americas also have often passed through Spanish, though they also usually have indigenous roots. Here are a few words you might not have guessed have Spanish roots.
The word “savvy” likely originates from the Spanish word sabe, which means “knows.”
While the word is likely influenced by native languages, the English word “tobacco” was most likely derived from the Spanish word tabaco.
The English word “vanilla” likely comes from the Spanish word vainilla, which itself comes from the Latin word for “pod.”
So whether or not you would have been guessed it, you’ve been using foreign words in your daily vocabulary since you were a small child. Who’d have thought?
And One More Thing...
If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.
With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.