5 English Words with Origins in African Languages
  • 3-minute read
  • 17th February 2021

5 English Words with Origins in African Languages

February is Black History Month in the USA and Canada. To celebrate, we’ve taken a break from our proofreading to look at how African languages have influenced our own. Did you know that the following terms had roots in Africa?

1. Cola

The fizzy drink “cola” is about as American as a drink can be. But the word “cola” comes from the kola nut (i.e., the original source of the caffeine in cola drinks).

This nut grows on kola trees in African rainforests. And as well as providing an ingredient for a popular drink, kola nuts are often chewed as a stimulant and play a key part in various African cultures’ spiritual practices.

A glass of cola with ice.
A delicious cola.
(Photo: Lernestorod)

2. Zombie

Zombies have been a big part of modern pop culture since Night of the Living Dead in 1968. You may also know that zombies are associated with Haitian folklore and voodoo. But not many people know the word has West African roots.

One possible source is the word zumbi from the Kongo language. This refers to a “fetish,” which is something believed to have supernatural powers.

This ritual connection may then have spread to Haiti and rituals for reanimating the dead. And this, in turn, eventually lead to the shambling hordes we see in movies.

3. Ebony

“Ebony” is a very dense and dark hardwood. It is perhaps most associated with its use in black piano keys and other parts of musical instruments. It is also a much older word in English than the others in this list, dating to the late sixteenth century!

This is because it has roots in the Ancient Egyptian word hbnj. Carved pieces have even been found in Egyptian tombs, indicating its long history of use.

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The word came to English via Latin and the Ancient Greek term ébenos. And it also gave us the modern French word for a cabinet maker – ebéniste – since ebony was a popular wood used for luxury cabinets in mid-seventeenth century Paris!

A piano keyboard.
? Ebony and ivory… ?
(Photo: Bluemount_Score)

4. Banjo

You might associate the sound of a banjo with folk and country music. But the earliest banjos were used by enslaved people in and around the Caribbean.

This gives us a clue to the African origins of the word “banjo,” too: many people trace it to the Kimbundu word mbanza, an instrument that resembles early banjos.

5. Jukebox

Sticking to a musical theme, we have “jukebox.” Another word that will feel entirely American to many, jukeboxes get their name from the “jook joints” they were first associated with (i.e., African American drinking establishments in the 1930s).

The “jook” itself came from Gullah – a creole language used in parts of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina – and meant “wicked” or “disorderly.” But some trace this term back further to the Wolof and Bambara word dzug, meaning “unsavory.”

Some also claim that “jazz” and “jive” have African origins. These etymologies aren’t certain, but we enjoy having an excuse to write “Jiving to jazz on the jukebox.”

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We hope the origins of some of these words surprised you! Maybe you know of some other English words with roots in African languages? Let us know in the comments below! And if you need any writing proofread, our experts are ready to help. Upload a trial document for free today to find out more.

Comments (2)
5th February 2023 at 19:01
Jumbo comes from the Swahili word ' jambo ' meaning elephant
    12th February 2023 at 16:52
    Hi, Favour. Thanks for this - great example!

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