Language is an amazing beast. Like living species, individual languages constantly evolve, and a look into their ever-changing nature reveals a world of history, symbolism, and the very spirit of past and present civilizations. There are many ways in which languages change over time, one of which consists in what is known as borrowing. As its name suggests, borrowing is a process whereby a word from one language is “loaned” to be used in another. That’s how we got expressions like fiancé (French) and ninja (Japanese). English is particularly keen on taking words from other languages to incorporate into its vocabulary, to the extent that American linguist David Crystal has described it as an “insatiable borrower.” So, it’s not surprising that English is riddled with Spanish words, considering how many Spanish-speakers there are throughout the world. In the spirit of Hispanic Heritage Month, here are a few words you might not know actually come from the world’s second-most spoken language.
It literally means “calm sea,” and afterwards “prosperity.” The term was used in mining to indicate any large mineral deposit and eventually became an expression for something very valuable or for any large amount. And surely, you’ve heard of NBC’s longest running western, a TV series by this very name. If not, you’re missing a great piece of television history!
A very important word whenever you visit the appropriate countries, fiesta literally means “party.” It is related to festival (a word also used in Spanish), from latin festa, meaning “feast.” So “have you been to Kevin’s parties?” is translated as “¿has ido a las fiestas de Kevin?”. There you go, Spanish 101 for all the party-animals out there.
This word entered the English language in the 17th century from the Spanish adaptation of the Nahuatl term xocolātl. For those who didn’t know, Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs. While chocolate precedes the Aztec civilization, we have them to thank for the name. Now you can begin to see how much Spanish is a part of your life: it’s there every time you think about the most popular food preparation in the world!
Burritos seem to be an international example of Mexican food. Ironically, in Mexico they are popular mostly in the northern part of the country, from where they made their way into the US, while remaining relatively obscure in southern Mexico. Unlike tacos, burritos are closed at the ends, so they can be easily picked up and eaten. The word literally means “little donkey.”
As you probably know, guacamole (a.k.a guac) is an avocado-based dip that was originally produced in some form or another by the Aztecs. The word in Nahuatl was ahuacamolli (from ahuacal, meaning “avocado”, and molli, namely “sauce”), which became guacamole in Latin American Spanish. So yeah, you can in fact thank the Aztecs for the dish.
From cafetera (“coffee maker”), which derives from café (“coffee”), cafetería in Spanish means the same as in English: “coffee house.” It’s certainly a very common word for the place where some of the best and worst high-school memories are forged.
Literally “colored red” or “blushed,” Colorado got its name after some early Spanish explorers found in the Rocky Mountain region a river whose waters ran red with silt and clay. They named the river Rio Colorado (Colorado River). Well, Spanish conquistadors are not exactly known for their creativity when it comes to naming places (as we’ll see below).
In Spanish, cargo literally means “I carry” or “I load”; while carga can be used as the equivalent noun. As its English counterpart (“to load”), the word can be used in Spanish to refer to technology. “The program is loading” can literally be translated to “el programa se está cargando.”
Guerra in Spanish means “war,” so guerrilla translates to something like “little war.” Used to refer to the guerrilleros or guerrilleras, the male and female fighters who fought small-scale battles, the term came to mean not only a group of such people (a guerrilla), but a specific type of warfare in most languages.
The Arawaks are a group of indigenous peoples from South America and the Caribbean. During the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Spanish explorers encountered them along with a very peculiar kind of reptile. The Arawakan name for these was iwana, which became iguana in Spanish. The word then made its way into English without any further modifications.
The name comes from the Spanish montaña, meaning “mountain.” Early Spanish explorers, when walking through the mountainous region of the west, named the entire area Montaña del Norte, a very inventive and original name meaning “Mountain of the North”. And yes, that was sarcasm.
Following the tradition of creatively naming the places they explored, when the Spanish saw a snow-covered mountain range in what is now the US they decided to call it Sierra Nevada; which means… wait for it… “snow-covered mountain range”!
Yeah… At any rate, from there the name Nevada (“snow-covered”) was a simple derivation.
The literal translation of this word is “watchman.” In Spanish, the word simply refers to a sort of guard, merely someone who stays vigilant. But in English, it has acquired a more specific –and far more entertaining– meaning.
This one has a slightly trickier translation. Roughly, it can be translated as “round up.” The word comes from the verb rodear, which means “to go around” or “to surround.” So yeah, it checks out.
Originally, margarita means “daisy”. Both words refer to flowers and to cocktail drinks, but no one really knows whether these uses are related. Perhaps we’ll never know, but we’ll always have margaritas to drown that sorrow.
There you go. You probably knew the origin of at least some of these words, but it’s still interesting to keep in mind just how much a culture can influence another one through language. And we’ve only begun talking about borrowing, let alone all other sorts of processes. Words like alligator and cigar also come from Spanish (although they’re not exactly Spanish words –they’ve been adapted into English). Knowing where your words originate from can really open up your world. And there are many, many examples of borrowed Spanish words besides the ones listed here. Which others do you know?
Other stories you might like:
6 Reasons That’ll Finally Convince You To Learn A Foreign Language
10 Bizarre Spanish Proverbs That Will Teach You Some New Life Lessons
The Complicated Relationship Of Love And Language
Cover photo: @antoni