We get many words from foreign languages. Our infographic lists some great English loanwords, from aardvark to algebra. (See below for the real meaning of orangutan.)
Note that tycoon, however, is not technically a loanword, as English has changed its original Japanese meaning a bit.
But first, a definition: a loanword is any word borrowed from another language without translation. However, the spelling of the loanword in the receiving language may be adapted to fit the conventions of that language.
English Loanwords: The Numbers
The phrase “English loanwords” may seem redundant. After all, an enormous amount of English vocabulary comes from other languages. Below are some statistics on words that we get from other tongues:
- An astonishing 80% of the words in an English dictionary come from other languages—mainly Latin, Greek, and French.
- More than 60% of all English words come from Greek or Latin.
- Latin- and Greek-derived words make up as much as 90% of English vocabulary in technology and the sciences.
- As much as one third of English vocabulary comes from French.
Our list is just the tip of the iceberg. (In fact, listing all the English loanwords in the dictionary is a job for either a linguist or someone with a lot of time on her hands.)
How Do Loanwords Make Their Way into English?
Many factors contribute to the high number of foreign words in English. For example, conquest, colonization, trade, travel, and international marriages all play a part.
Take the orangutan (the animal, not the word), for example. For thousands of years, it was well known to people living in Borneo and Sumatra—the jungles there are its home.
Europeans, however, didn’t even set eyes on an orangutan until the 17th century (that we know of, at least). The earliest writings about the great apes called “Ourang Outang” were from a Dutch doctor living on the island of Java in the early 1600s.
In fact, for many years naturalists used the term ourang-outang for any great ape. It wasn’t until later that the the word referred only to a particular species of great ape with reddish-brown hair.
The point, of course, is that speakers of a given language can’t even conceive of a word for a thing they’ve never seen (with the possible exception of science fiction writers).
The Meaning of Orangutan
So what’s the meaning of orangutan? Interestingly, the orang part has nothing to do with the animal’s orange-reddish fur.
In Malay, orang means “man” or “person” and utan means “forest”—in other words, a “man of the forest.”
English Is No Purebred
It makes sense that there are so many English loanwords. (After all, English is a relatively young language.)
Of course, the reverse is true as well. Plenty of other languages have borrowed words from English.
For example, the French say marketing, the Germans have der Airbag, and the word básquet (basketball) is used in Spanish.
The takeaway? Languages aren’t purebreds—they’re mutts.
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.
—James Nicoll, “The King’s English,” rec.arts.sf-lovers, May 15, 1990.
If you liked this post, check out 9 more English words that come from other languages. Spoiler alert: we get “ketchup” from Malay.