35 Words You Should Know How to Use in Spanish and English
Once upon a time there was a man called Juan Ponce de León.
He was a natural conquistador, or that is what we are told.
But either way, the truth is that he was one of the first Spanish men to step on present-day U.S. territory.
He led the first expedition to Florida, named it (Florida, not the expedition), and the rest is history… Or is it?
Don’t panic. I don’t plan to give you a lecture on how the Spanish Empire conquered half the world.
Yet you are likely here because you are learning Spanish, and I think you should know if you don’t already that, through the centuries, Spaniards have been very present in the Americas, and inevitably this meant the Spanish language blended with American languages and cultures.
Cultures in Latin America, the American Southwest and beyond have been shaped by Spanish presence. This means that not only is Spanish spoken in Latin America, but it has been integrated into the English language as well.
I like to think of a language as a living entity. So when I think of a language, I think not only in terms of grammar rules and vocabulary, but I also imagine the millions and millions of people who have influenced and contributed to that language until it became what it is nowadays.
I know this may sound too romantic for some of you. Sorry, not sorry. I am in love with languages and everything regarding them.
This post is an ode to the Spanish language, and more specifically, how it managed to permeate the English language, leaving its footprint until today.
The following 35 Spanish words are more or less common in American English. They are used in Spanish almost everyday, so if you are a native English speaker, you can use them as examples of how closely related your and my native languages are.
Even if you already know these words, it is important to understand the differences in the way they are used between the two languages, especially if you ever plan on using them in Spanish!
Throughout this list you will be able to see and learn how we native Spanish speakers use (or don’t!) these words, and you will be given, when necessary, a quick explanation about the differences between the English and Spanish meanings. At the end of the post, you should know if you can use any one of these words in a Spanish-speaking environment or if you would do better to keep quiet.
Unless otherwise stated, all these words have approximately the same meaning and usage in Spanish and English nowadays. I have added the necessary information when they differ.
¡Viva la fiesta! 35 Awesome Spanish Words Used in English
Our first word is written exactly the same both in English and Spanish. Adobe comes from the Arabic word al-tob, which means something along the lines of “mud brick.”
There is one difference between the English and the Spanish, though: pronunciation. Remember that in Spanish we normally read words exactly how they are written, so we say ah-dóh-beh.
I have seen an increase in the use of this word in English lately. You used to have football fans, now you have sports aficionados. There used to be art lovers, now there are art aficionados. And that is pretty cool. It is my native language in use, after all.
What is funniest for me is the fact that in Spanish we are using more and more the word “fan” instead of aficionado. In every context. Every. Single. Day. Now tell me languages aren’t weirdly special!
Now this is one of my favorite words in this list! Pay attention here.
Arabic had the word al-gattas, which means “the diver.” From there, Spanish got the word alcatraz (gannet), which entered English as “albatross.” Then a weird thing happened: Spanish borrowed this word back from English, thus giving us our present-day Spanish albatros!
Alcalde (mayor, magistrate) is one of those words I had no idea was used in English. I don’t know to what extent this word is used in everyday conversations, but one thing is sure, it has a Spanish origin.
However, be careful where you utter it, because according to the “Collins English Spanish Dictionary,” it means “pimp” in Latin America!
Let me tell you that I think the word amigo is one of the most overused words in the Spanish language, and hence probably in American English, too. Everybody seems to be amigos with everybody, which for me is something weird. I am sure living in Poland for more than 10 years has made me see the word amigo differently, because here the line between acquaintance, friend and colleague is very well defined.
Anyway, “amigo” comes from the Spanish word amigo, which comes from the Latin word amicus (friend), which is derived from the verb amare (to love). Maybe this is why we love everybody in Spain!
Things are starting to get a little aggressive around here! The word bandolier comes from the Spanish bandolera, which is a band that crosses from one shoulder to the opposite hip where bandoleros used to put their weapons, and also bandolero (one who wears a bandolera, i.e., probably a bandit).
However, if you wear something across your chest nowadays, you say in Spanish llevar algo en bandolera (to carry across the shoulder), which has nothing to do with bandits, obviously, but sounds intimidating anyway. Load your bandoleras!
It is a pity I don’t drink alcohol, because I see people tend to be very happy when they have or are around a bodega. Well… I have my grammar obsession instead.
Bodega comes from Spanish bodega (cellar), which derived from Latin-Greek aphotheca. It is interesting that the word aphotheca entered many other languages with the meaning of “pharmacy” (take as an example the Polish word apteka — pharmacy). So I guess I am starting to understand why people feel so good around bodegas after all…
Previously, I didn’t know the word “buckaroo” even existed, and I am really a language freak!
The word “buckaroo” comes from Spanish vaquero (cowboy), which is a person who manages cattle while mounted on horseback. The word vaquero derived from the word vaca (cow), which was borrowed from Latin (vacca — cow).
The Spanish burro derived from Latin burricus, which means “small horse.” This seems a little unfair, but I am no one to judge here.
There have always been a lot of negative connotations around donkeys. So much so that nowadays you can use this word as an insult when you want to say someone is “stupid” or a “moron”… poor donkeys!
Caballero, which has the meaning of “knight” or “gentleman” in English, comes from the Spanish word caballero. Duh! A caballero is someone who rides a caballo (horse), and caballo was from the Latin caballus (horse).
Oh, boy, do I love me some cocoa! Or cacao! Whatever!
I always joke and tell my students that the English language likes to complicate our lives in ways that never cease to surprise me, and this is one example. Why did you change the vowels in the word “cacao”? Isn’t it more complicated to pronounce?
Jokes aside, cocoa comes from Spanish cacao, which derived from Nahuatl cacáhuatl. If you know some Spanish, you should recognize this word, since it has given us another, also delicious, food: el cacahuete (the peanut). Manteca de cacahuete (peanut butter), anyone?
It seems we are getting serious again. It is not that I am a fan of Hannibal Lecter or anything like that. A word is a word.
Cannibal comes from the Spanish word caníbal, which is just a variation of the word caríbal, which in turn derives from the word Caribe (Caribbean, Carib). The Carib tribes knew how to offer resistance to the conquistadores (conquerors), and I am guessing from the way the word has evolved, they found conquistador meat to be quite a delicacy…
A chorizo is a spiced pork sausage probably known worldwide. As a big fan of chorizos, I really recommend you try one of these if you happen to travel to Spain.
That being said, there is another shade of the word that is not so delicious. A chorizo is a thief, and it has been consistently used to describe some Spanish politicians in the past few years. Believe it or not, some people have even put a slice of chorizo inside their voting envelope as a sign of protest! Those ballots, unfortunately, were all considered deliciously invalid.
If you hear the word “conquistador” you can have one of two thoughts: Either you imagine a muscled, handsome and brave man conquering new land, or you see the face of evil. Even though I am Spanish, I don’t think my fellows did right, but I cannot change history.
Conquistador comes from Spanish conquistador, which in turn derived from conquista (conquest). Conquista was the result of borrowing the Latin word conquisita, which means “conquest.”
“Corralito” comes from the Spanish word corral, which, like in English, is a pen or farmyard. Originally, the word “corralito” was used to define a closed playground where children could safely play without escaping.
However, the new definition of the word says that a corralito is a situation where a government closes the banks (the playground) so that money (the children) cannot be withdrawn (i.e., cannot escape). Interesting comparison…
Touching a delicate topic here, I am going to be as neutral as possible.
Crusade is a blend of the Middle French croisade and Spanish cruzado. Both words came from Latin crux, crucis (cross).
Maybe you can understand now why the Stations of the Cross, or the Way of the Cross, are called Via crucis, and how the word “crusade” has developed the meaning it has today from its place in history.
This one is easy and fun, especially after a few.
Daiquiri comes from the name Daiquiri, a port city in Eastern Cuba.
Daiquiris contain rum, a lot of rum. Cuba’s most famous alcoholic drink is rum… I am just connecting some dots here.
First things first. If you have not watched the film “Desperado,” do it right now. You don’t want to miss Antonio Banderas in this one!
Desperado is an adaptation of the Spanish word desesperado, which means “desperate.”
By the way, check out these Spanish-speaking singers and listen to Marta Sánchez’s song “Desesperada.” Sexy at its best!
I still have not met a person in the whole world who does not know or has not heard about the word “fiesta.” Now let’s be honest for a moment. Spanish and Latin American people are not livin’ la vida loca (the crazy life) and having fun 24/7. Urban legends are destroying our reputation!
What is true is that the word “fiesta” entered English through Spanish. We also have fiesta (party), which comes from Latin festa.
Flamenco is one of those music genres you either love or hate. There is no “in-between-ness” here. Even people from the South of Spain, where flamenco originated, are divided into flamenco lovers and flamenco… not lovers.
The word flamenco is used to define a type of music and dance performed mainly by people of gypsy origin. The word flamenco comes from the Middle Dutch word vlaminc (which means “from Flanders”), because in the past there was a theory that said gypsies were of Germanic origin.
“Galleon” comes from Spanish galeón, which is a large sailing ship with three or more masts.
It is interesting how the word in Spanish has its accent on the last syllable, while in English it is on the first one. You guys love to complicate things!
“Hacienda” is one of those words that makes me daydream of traveling to huge ranches full of horses and sweaty guys and…
Haciendas are very cool. Period.
The word hacienda, meaning “estate,” comes from the Old Spanish word fazienda. There are a lot of Spanish words starting with “h-” that used to begin with “f-” in Old Spanish. Oh, the joys of language evolution!
I was so surprised when I discovered this word is actually of Spanish origin!
I had always thought this was a French word, don’t ask me why…
Lolita is the diminutive form of Lola, which in turn is short for Dolores (a female proper noun meaning “pains, sorrows”). That this word, closely related to religion, ended up meaning what it means today is strange to say the least.
Here you have a word I would personally delete from my language. I do not like bullfighting at all, but I cannot like everything, can I?
Matador literally means “a person who kills.” It comes from the Spanish infinitive matar (to kill, to slaughter).
Curiously enough, people in Spain tend to avoid using the word matador. They normally say torero (bullfighter), which is basically a person who fights toros (bulls).
And the award for the biggest surprise on this list goes to… oregano!
If you asked me a couple of weeks ago what the origin of this word was, I wouldn’t have hesitated: obviously Italian! Come on! Who doesn’t think of Italian pizza when they hear the word “oregano”? Be honest.
But nope. “Oregano” entered English via Spanish orégano, which, you may have guessed, means “oregano” or “marjoram.”
So who wants some Spanish oregano on their Italian pizza?
During the past few years, I have been asked quite a few times if this word is the augmentative form of pedo (fart). Sorry to disappoint, but no, it is not.
Peon comes from Spanish peón, which is used to describe any type of laborer. Imagine a person who has to work hard to earn their money, who comes home full of dirt and tired as a mug. There you have your peón.
I guess not a lot needs to be said about this word.
“Rumba” comes from Spanish rumba, which is that impossible dance all my friends have mastered to perfection and I am not even able to describe.
If you like rumba, I really recommend you get familiar with the rumba catalana. I love it!
Now we’re talking! Siesta. I heart siestas… not.
It doesn’t matter where I travel, everybody knows what a siesta is, and they happen to love it! However, I still remember when my mom used to force me to have my daily siesta during the summer, and I honestly hated it! I am starting to think my friends are right and I am the weirdest Spaniard in the whole world…
“Siesta” comes from Latin sexta hora (the sixth hour). The sixth hour refers to the prayer time at noon (six hours after dawn), but Spanish siesta starts after eating lunch, which can normally be 3 or 4 p.m.
If you are in Spain, bear in mind that most shops are closed during siesta time, which means if you need to buy something, you will have to wait until around 6 p.m.!
Now let me offer a reflection here. Everyone knows there are a lot of kinds of sombreros. Good. Everyone also knows there is a type of sombrero worn by mariachis. Cool. It is a Mexican sombrero and we love them. But…
Please, please, please! Do not be one of those foreigners walking down the streets of Barcelona wearing a Mexican hat just because you think it is the most Spanish thing in the world! I am telling you this for your own good. We Spaniards laugh our heads off when we see you dressed like that. These sombreros are from Mexico, so let them be proud!
The word sombrero comes from Spanish sombrero, which means, literally, “shade maker.” Easy!
“Tango” is one of those sexy words the Spanish language has given the world. For free.
Whether you know how to dance a tango or not, just remember it is a word of Spanish origin. If you want to pronounce it correctly in Spanish, it should be said tan-goh. The more you know…
Who doesn’t know about tapas? Who doesn’t love them?
I am sure you have been to a tapas bar at least once in your life. Tapas are… the best!
Interestingly, tapas bars are something relatively new in Spain. Not long ago you didn’t have any bars dedicated to tapas. You would just go to any bar and you could get tapas (something that still holds true). I believe tapas bars have been created to satisfy foreigners’ appetites.
I am sure many visitors knew tapas existed, but they didn’t know exactly where they could find them. Probably some people thought it would be a good idea to offer a menu just comprised of tapas so that the untrained eye could easily understand where to go, and voilà! Tapas bars appeared.
The word tapas comes from the word tapar (to cover). Back in the Middle Ages, when you could not find a single tavern without flies, these little insects had a tendency to taste the drinks served. I guess they got drunk and died inside the beverage… Until one smart person thought it would be interesting to cover the glass with something in between sips. They started using a loaf of bread, then chorizo was added… You can imagine the rest.
If you want to know other curious facts about the origin of tapas, I recommend you visit this page.
Telenovelas are something every ’80s and ’90s kid in Spain and Latin America has grown up with. I cannot imagine thinking about my childhood and not remembering how I and my family used to sit on the couch before having the siesta and would stare at the TV like hypnotized zombies, biting our nails and gasping every two minutes because a drama bomb had just been dropped…
I also can’t forget how every day they would finish the episode with the biggest cliffhanger ever and you would not believe they had just done that. Every. Single. Day. It was like a narcotic, you just wanted more, and more, and more…
It didn’t matter if they were from Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Colombia… You would watch them all because… just because.
The word telenovela is a fusion of two Spanish words: televisión (TV) and novela (novel). Watching a telenovela is indeed like watching a book be scenified on your TV. However, there is a difference between reading a novel and watching a telenovela. If you choose the latter, you can very well spend six months of your life waiting for the big climax to happen!
Nowadays, the word telenovela can also be used in Spanish to talk about people whose lives seem like a TV soap opera, full of drama, cliffhangers and love stories that can leave you breathless:
Su vida parece una telenovela. ¡Se ha divorciado 4 veces ya! (Her life looks like a telenovela. She has been divorced 4 times already!)
Vanilla comes from Spanish vainilla, which in turn comes from Latin vaina (pod).
As you may know already, the Spanish suffix -illo/-illa is used as a diminutive, so a vainilla would be a small vaina.
34. Yerba buena
Saying I love yerba buena because it is muy buena (very tasty) may seem silly, but that is the truth. I find mint to be simply delicious.
If you don’t know all the good things this herb can do for you, I really recommend you start reading about it!
Yerba buena comes from Spanish yerbabuena, which, literally translated, means “good herb.”
I think few people nowadays don’t know of Zorro. His Z is famous around the world, and who needs more excuses to once again watch Antonio Banderas save the world? If you don’t know of the film “The Mask of Zorro,” get to know it, and soon!
Zorro comes from the Spanish zorro, which is “fox.” Foxes are known for being clever, and you can say of someone that they are un zorro because they are just too smart!
So there you have it. 35 super awesome words of Spanish origin that have traveled time and space and have landed in American English.
Seeing so many of my native words being used in another language makes me proud of being Spanish. I know language can be not so important for many people, but for us language geeks this is a way to discover new stuff, new patterns and even new meanings of words.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. If you did, click on my name and you will be able to read more of them.
See you next time, folks!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.