55 American English Words Derived from Algonquian Languages

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

background image

American English has been enriched by the widespread adoption of words based on vocabulary of Native American tribes, including the many tribes that spoke (and, in some cases, still speak) one of the Algonquian languages of what is now eastern North America. The following is a list of such terms, more or less commonly used, most of which refer to animals or plants or products derived from them.

apishamore (Algonquian): a buffalo-hide saddle blanket
babiche (Míkmaq): a leather or sinew thong or thread
caribou (Míkmaq): a species of large antlered mammal
caucus (Algonquian): a group of people who meet to discuss an issue or work together toward a goal; also a verb
chipmunk (Odawa): any of various small rodent species that are part of the squirrel family
chinquapin (Powhatan): a dwarf chestnut tree or its nut
cisco (Ojibwe): a whitefish
hackmatack (Algonquian): a type of larch tree, or its wood
hickory (Powhatan): a type of tree or its wood, or a cane or switch made of the wood
hominy (Powhatan): soaked and hulled corn kernels
husky (based on shortening of the Cree word from which Eskimo is derived): a type of dog; the adjective husky is unrelated
kinkajou (Algonquian): a Central and South American mammal
kinnikinnick (or killikinnick or killickinnick) (Unami Delaware): a mixture of dried leaves and bark smoked like tobacco, or the plant (also called bearberry) from which the materials are taken
mackinaw (Menomini): a heavy type of cloth used for coats and blankets, or a coat or blanket made of the cloth, or a type of trout
moccasin (Algonquian): a soft leather shoe or a regular shoe resembling a traditional moccasin, or, as “water moccasin,” a species of snake or a similar snake
moose (Eastern Abenaki): a species of large antlered mammal
mugwump (Eastern Abenaki): originally, a war leader, but in American slang, a kingpin, later a political independent, or someone neutral or undecided
muskellunge (Ojibwe): a pike (a type of fish)
muskeg (Cree): a bog or swamp
muskrat (Western Abenaki): an aquatic rodent
opossum (Powhatan): a marsupial (sometimes possum)
papoose (Narragansett): an infant
pecan (Illinois): a type of tree, or the wood or the nut harvested from it
pemmican (Cree): a food made of pounded meat and melted fat, and sometimes flour and molasses as well
persimmon (Powhatan): a type of tree, or the fruit harvested from it
pipsissewa (Abenaki): a type of herb with leaves used for tonic and diuretic purposes
pokeweed (Powhatan): a type of herb
pone (Powhatan): flat cornbread; also called cornpone, which is also slang meaning “countrified” or “down-home”)
powwow (Narragansett): a Native American medicine man, or, more commonly, a Native American ceremony, fair, or other gathering; also, slang for “meeting” or, less often, “party”
puccoon (Powhatan): a type of plant, or the pigment derived from it
pung (Algonquian): a box-shaped sleigh drawn by one horse
punkie (Munsee): an alternate name for a biting midge, a type of fly
quahog (Narragansett): a type of edible clam
Quonset hut (Algonquian): a trademark for a type of prefabricated structure with an arched corrugated-metal roof
raccoon (Powhatan): a type of mammal noted for its masklike facial markings, or the fur of the animal
sachem (Algonquian): a chief of a Native American tribe or confederation of tribes; also, a leader in the Tammany Hall political machine
sagamore (Eastern Abenaki): an Algonquian tribal chief
shoepac (Unami Delaware): a cold-weather laced boot
skunk (Massachusett): a type of mammal known for spraying a noxious odor in defense, or the fur of the animal; also, slang for “obnoxious person”
squash (Narragansett): any of various plants that produces fruit, also called squash, that is cultivated as a vegetable; the verb squash, and the name of the ball-and-racquet game, are unrelated
squaw (Massachusetts): a Native American woman or, by extension, a woman or a wife; the word is widely considered offensive
succotash (Narragansett): a dish of green corn and lima or shell beans
terrapin (Powhatan): one of various types of turtles
toboggan (Míkmaq): a wooden sled with the front end curved up and, by extension, a downward course or a sharp decline (the activity of using such a sled is called tobogganing); also, a slang term for a winter stocking cap with a pom-pom or a tassel
tomahawk (Powhatan): a light ax used as a throwing or hacking weapon; as verb, it means “use a tomahawk”
totem (Ojibwe): an object, usually an animal or plant, serving as a family or clan emblem, or, more often, a carved or painted representation, often in the form of a pole fashioned from a tree trunk and carved with figures representing one’s ancestors (also, a family or clan so represented); by extension, any emblem or symbol
tuckahoe (Powhatan): a type of plant with an edible root, or the edible part of a type of fungus
tullibee (Ojibwe): any one of several types of whitefish
wampum (Massachusett): beads of polished shells used as ceremonial gifts, money, or ornaments; also, slang for “money”
wanigan (Ojibwa): a tracked or wheeled shelter towed by a tractor or mounted on a boat or raft
wapiti Shawnee): another word for elk
wickiup (Fox): a hut or shelter made of a rough frame of vegetation
wigwam (Eastern Abenaki): a hut or shelter made of a rough frame of vegetation or hides
woodchuck (Algonquian): a type of marmot (a small mammal); also called a groundhog

Want to improve your English in 5 minutes a day? Click here to subscribe and start receiving our writing tips and exercises via email every day.

Recommended Articles for You


5 Responses to “55 American English Words Derived from Algonquian Languages”

  • D.A.W.

    “caribou (Míkmaq): a species of large antlered mammal”
    I have found out recently that the caribou is essentially the same species of deerlike animals as the reindeer, and perhaps the same animal goes by other names in other places — all circling the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. Hence “caribou” is not the species, but rather just one of the names of the species. The caribou/reindeer, etc., live in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, northern Scandinavia, Spitsbergen, European Russia, and Siberia, plus there are a herd or two of these polar animals that have been introduced (by people) to northern Scotland. I would not be surprised to see some of these animals living in the wild in Iceland, New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego, etc.
    We have some other single species of animals that go by various names in different parts of the world, such as: cougar, mountain lion, panther, and puma, though the South American puma might have diverged into a separate species.
    I also read that in parts of Asia, the words for lion and leopard are identical. That can get confusing, because there are tales that lions lived on the island of Ceylon. Zoologists say that this is highly unlikely, but there is plenty of evidence for leopards living on Ceylon.
    It is also true that these nonflying birds of the Southern Hemisphere are closely related: the ostrich, cassowary, emu, and rhea, which live in southern/central Africa, southern South America, Australia, and New Guinea, and they were also close to the extinct giant moa of New Zealand. The evidence from their DNA says that the (much smaller) kiwi of New Zealand is also related.
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    There is a wide variety of related animals that fall into the realm of “deer”, incl. brown deer, red deer, white deer, mule deer, elk, caribou/reindeer, moose (also called “elk” in some places), etc.
    The exceptional feature of the caribou/reindeer is that both the adult males and the females have antlers, but among the other species of deer, only the males have these, and they use them mostly for fighting with one another during the “rutting season”.
    The caribou/reindeer have a more utilitarian use for antlers: they are useful for digging up food from the regions of the tundra, as well as for self-defense.
    There were no such similar animals that lived on New Zealand, but the European settlers wanted something to go hunting for (an eating), so they introduced species of deer from Great Britain into the wild on New Zealand, and those wild animals still live there.
    In Australia, there are nonmarsupial animals that have lived there for a long time now: horses, camels, dogs (esp. the dingo), cattle, sheep, goats, and cats.

  • venqax

    No teepee?

  • venqax

    Ok. Teepee is evidently Siouan which is not Algonquian, I don’t believe. So my mystery is solved.

  • Moe

    Some of these are wrong in terms of origin and language. I’m nêhiyawak from Canada. Quite a few of the words listed have incorrect translations, and are shortened versions of the actual words. The English language fails Indigenous languages.

Leave a comment: