English words from other languages prove one thing: our language is more of a mutt than a purebred. It may seem hard to believe, but most of the words in our dictionary come from foreign languages.
Though the big contributors are Latin, Greek, and French, we get words from other languages, too. Arabic, German, Malay, Irish—you name it, English has gotten words from it.
A Few Words from Other Languages
Orange Glad for Etymology Dictionaries?
Take the word orange. Oranges are originally from India. But it was Arabs who introduced orange trees to the Mediterranean region.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Arabic word نارنج (nāranj) for the fruit gave rise to naranja (Spanish), arancia (Italian), and orange (French). English got orange from Old French around 1300, but it didn’t appear as a color word until 250 years later.
In a previous list of English loanwords, we discussed the origin of the words hazard, geyser, and tycoon, among others. (These are from French, Icelandic, and Japanese, respectively.)
Languages are open systems. Far from being an airtight box, English is more like a semi-permeable container.
Our latest list illustrates the same idea. In fact, English gets many words from other languages. The word clock appears on the list, and there’s a great story behind it.
How Bells Became Clocks
The first known use of clock was in the 14th century. The spelling of the word was clokke at the time, and the object had bells. In fact, Modern French cloche and Medieval Latin clocca both mean “bell.”
But the word is likely Celtic in origin. The Old Irish word clocc, Welsh cloch, and Manx clagg all mean “bell.” The word spread thanks to early Irish missionaries who used—you guessed it—hand bells.
The Origin of Passport Makes Total Sense
One of the English words from other languages in our list has a logical origin. That little booklet that customs agents stamp after you get off the plane in a foreign country was originally for use at—wait for it—a port.
“Of course!” you’re say. “The word comes to us from Middle French!”
You’re right. The French word passeport simply meant permission to pass through a port. (This is before airplanes, of course.)
The Logic of German
Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch to say that an entire language is logical based on a sample size of one word. But rucksack is a good one.
Students of German know that Sack is the word for “sack” or “bag.” (Nouns in German are capitalized.)
In addition, Rücken means “back” (the part of the body, not the adverb).
Combine the two and you get a word that means exactly what it is: a bag worn on your back.
The Fishy Story Behind Ketchup
Allegedly from the Malay word kĕchap (“fish sauce”), the word ketchup used to refer to any spiced gravy or sauce. That’s right—you could have mushroom ketchup or walnut ketchup, for example.
The alternate spelling catsup was an attempt to make the word more “English-sounding” (cat and sup). What’s funny, of course, is that now this spelling is almost totally obsolete, though I remember seeing it in old cartoons when I was a kid.
If there’s one thing that words from other languages teach us, it’s that languages are open systems.
English is not an airtight box, but rather more like a semi-permeable container. It lets in words from other languages and “leaks” its own words to foreign tongues. And our world is the richer for it.
Special thanks to Emily Smith for her research assistance.
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