Spanish Loan Words

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The English language is a thief. What we call English isn’t really English at all. Instead, it’s a collection of borrowings from other languages. Latin is the main one, but there’s also a good bit of French and a healthy serving of Spanish. There are thousands of Spanish loan words in English – some claim as many as 10,000 – and they all entered the language from three main sources.

Trade in the Caribbean region brought a number of local Spanish words into the language:

  • barbecue
  • cannibal
  • llama
  • hammock
  • hurricane
  • potato
  • tobacco
  • yucca

Many words were brought into English by cowboys working in the Southwest USA, such as:

  • bronco
  • buckaroo (from vaquero, Spanish for cowboy)
  • desperado
  • rodeo
  • vigilante

Then there are several words for food and drink that you just can’t describe in English:

  • avocado
  • banana
  • burrito
  • chili
  • dorado
  • guacamole
  • maize
  • margarita
  • paella
  • papaya
  • pimento
  • tequila
  • tortilla
  • vanilla
  • yam

And then there are others, where we know the Spanish words, but we’re just not sure exactly how they got here.

  • adobe
  • albino
  • alcove
  • alfalfa
  • algebra
  • alligator (from the Spanish for lizard – el lagarto)
  • armadillo
  • barracuda
  • cafeteria
  • canyon
  • chihuahua
  • cigar/cigarette
  • cockroach
  • embargo
  • guerilla
  • guitar
  • iguana
  • incommunicado
  • jaguar
  • macho
  • mosquito
  • renegade
  • savvy
  • siesta
  • tornado

This is just a selection of the Spanish loan words we use in English. Have you got any favorite ones to add to the list?

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8 thoughts on “Spanish Loan Words”

  1. According to the online etymological dictionary, alfalfa and algebra came via Spanish but they’re Arabic words. Guitar came via Spanish via Arabic via Greek. Jaguar is Portuguese. No time to check others.

  2. Sharon,
    Great article, but I have to differ regarding your introductory sentences.

    English is English. It’s a Germanic language that happens to have an extremely rich and varied vocabulary drawn from many other languages.

    All languages take in words from contact with other languages and all are enriched by the phenomenon. As Charles points out, Spanish took words from Arabic during its long association with Moorish culture. Does that make Spanish a “thief?”

  3. Jaguar is Portuguese but also spanish and italian

    there are a lot of spanish, french, italian and portuguese words in common

    nice article

  4. Yes, Charles, there are a number of Spanish words that come from Arabic, many of them as a result of the Moorish incursion in 711. Thanks for the input on the origins of some of the words (thanks to you, too, temp).

    Maeve, point taken. I was speaking tongue in cheek, which maybe doesn’t work for everyone, but no offence was intended. English has a rich linguistic and cultural heritage (the Angles, Saxons, Normans, Romans and many others have all added immensely to this linguistic melting pot).

  5. I don’t accept the idea that the English language is a thief because it is a collection of words from other languages. I think you find almost every language is thus! Spanish is a romance language and a direct descendent from Latin, it takes the vast majority of it’s vocabulary from Latin. This is also the case for Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian etc. Latin took heavily from Greek. It just isn’t right to describe any language as being a thief, all languages have their roots and derivations, it’s the way language evolves and changes.

  6. @michael:

    Because there has always been a bustling Hebrew community in Spain (well, not always but for most of the Middle ages) and the language lacked a word for it.

    It eventually degenerated into the word “sábado”.

    Spanish Jews were so many, that not only do the have their own cultural group (the Sephardites) but, as they were the money lenders when they got expulsed from Spain in 1492, Spain was plunged in an economic crisis! (thankfully, for Spain, the Americas’ discovery immediately followed this.)

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