Beyond Words - Language Blog

Banana, Rodeo, Thug and 15 Other Everyday Words That Weren’t Always English

Most people would agree that some languages have just the bon mot for a particular sentiment.

The English language has adopted many of these perfect expressions and incorporated them into everyday speech and writing.

Check out this list of words and a bit of the story behind how they made their way into English.

à la

If you are having a brownie with a scoop of ice cream on top, you are having a brownie à la mode, and you have the French to thank for the delicious treat. In French, à la means “in the style of”, with à la mode meaning “in the current style.” If a restaurant has an à la carte dining fashion, patrons are free to select from a fixed list of options on the menu, or carte.

amateur

Originally, to be an amateur meant to be a lover of something, from the Latin amare, meaning “to love.” The contemporary meaning of the term, meaning a non-professional practitioner of some pursuit, comes from the French. A similar term of Italian origin – dilettante – comes from the verb dilettare, meaning “to delight.”

armada

The term used to describe a large navy fleet made its way into English from the Spanish armada. The root arma, meaning “weapon,” described the heavily armed and protected Spanish ships. Similarly, the armadillo is a small “armored” creature thanks to its heavy outer shell.

banana

The name of this fruit comes from the Arabic ba’nana, meaning “fingers.”

biscuit

This pastry comes from the prefix bi-, signifying something doubled, and –cuit, meaning “cooked” in the French language. Originally, biscuits were baked through twice in order to achieve their satisfying crunch.

bistro

The bistro, or small, European-inspired café or restaurant, has quite a dubious etymology. It may have originated from the regional French words of the Poitou dialect bistrot, bistingo, or bistraud, meaning a “lesser servant,” or from the term bistouille or bistrouille, which was a type of drink made from brandy and coffee. A more riveting – although mostly discredited – etymology takes place in Russian-occupied Paris after the Napoleonic wars. It was once believed that Russian troops shouted “бы́стро” (pronounced “bistro” and meaning “quickly”) as they stopped at restaurants on their way through town.

buckaroo

The familiar colloquialism comes from the Spanish vaquero, meaning “cowboy.”

ennui

The term for a persistent state of melancholy, listlessness, or boredom originates in the French ennui, meaning “annoyance.”

jungle

This word originates from the 18th century in India, from the Hindi word jangal, meaning a rough, wild, and waterless place.

rodeo

Rodeos became an American southwestern staple as they made their way from Central America. The term comes from the Spanish rodear, meaning “to round up.”

R.S.V.P.

To R.S.V.P., one lets the host know that he or she will be attending an event. This bit of etiquette comes from the French phrase “Répondez s’il vous plait”, asking guests to please respond to the invitation.

savvy

The term denoting keen, practical understanding of a situation comes from the Spanish verb saber, meaning “to know.”

sherry

The type of sweet wine known as sherry comes from the name of the Spanish town where it originated – Jerez (Xerés in Old Spanish).

sombrero

The wide-brimmed hat known as the sombrero takes its name from its purpose – in Spanish, a sombrero is an object that creates shade.

Sudoku

Although citizens of many countries have played number puzzles for centuries, the current popular Sudoku trend originates in Japan. Popularized in French newspapers of the 20th century, the puzzle was introduced to Japan in 1984 under the title “Suji wa dokushin ni kagiru”, meaning that all digits in the number puzzle must be unrepeated. The title was later abbreviated into the acronym Sudoku and has since become a popular trend in numerous countries.

tango

The passionate and intimate Argentine dance earned its name from the Latin finite verb tango, meaning “I touch.”

teriyaki

This method of cooking originates in Japan and takes its name from the morphemes teri, meaning “glaze” and yaki, meaning “broiling.” Thus, a dish like teriyaki chicken consists of broiled or grilled chicken coated in a sweet soy sauce marinade.

thug

In the original Hindi, a thag is a thief or conman. A Thuggee was an Indian network of secret fraternities who were engaged in murdering and robbing travellers and known for strangling their victims.