9 English Words You Might Not Know Have Spanish Origins
  • 4-minute read
  • 3rd May 2016

9 English Words You Might Not Know Have Spanish Origins

It is Cinco de Mayo soon, so we’re looking at some English words that came to us via Spanish. And while some words have obviously Spanish origins, like “churro” or “fiesta,” we’re going to focus on terms you might not realize have Hispanic roots.

Incidentally, will someone please remind us to throw a “churro fiesta” soon? It sounds like it would be an awesome/delicious party.

1. Creepy Crawlies: “Cockroach”

Nobody likes to think about roaches if they don’t have to, so you might not have considered where the term “cockroach” comes from. But the English as we know it is a version of the Spanish word cucaracha, which spread during colonial times.

Pretty, ain’t he? [Photo: Sharadpunita]

Lots of other animals get their names from Spanish, too, including the alligator (el lagarto, meaning “the lizard”), the albatross (which comes from alcatraz, originally meaning “pelican” or “seabird” more generally in Spanish), and mosquitoes (the diminutive of mosca, meaning “fly,” with mosquito literally meaning “little fly”).

Given this range of beasties, it’s almost a shame the word “menagerie” is French.

2. Culinary Delights: “Chocolate” and “Cannibal”

OK, so maybe this one isn’t so surprising. Chocolate comes from cocoa, after all. And the Spanish “chocolate” is itself borrowed from the Aztec word xocolatl.

Sweet, Aztec deliciousness… [Photo: SKopp]

But there’s still an impressive number of American English words for foodstuffs that come from Spanish, including “banana,” “potato,” “jerky,” and “tuna.”

In case this has made you hungry, it is worth noting that “cannibal” comes from the Spanish caribal. A much less delicious etymological claim, we hope you’ll agree.

3. Windy Weather: “Hurricane” and “Breeze”

The most famously Spanish weather term is probably “El Niño,” which refers to a regular warming of sea surface temperatures. The Spanish term translates literally as “The Boy,” which is because it was named after the infant Jesus.

But did you know that other weather words have Spanish origins, too?

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“Hurricane,” for instance, is adapted from the Spanish huracan, “breeze” comes from the Old Spanish briza, and “tornado” comes to us via tronada.

Come to think of it, it makes sense that the language of a nation known for exploring the world in sailboats has a lot of words for kinds of wind.

4. Wild West: “Cowboy” and “Ten-Gallon Hat”

Thanks to Hollywood westerns and stars like John Wayne, we all now recognize the cowboy as an iconic image of US culture. You might, therefore, be surprised to find out that “cowboy” is originally a direct translation of the Spanish term vaquero.

Plenty of other Wild West words have Spanish origins, too. These include “ranch,” “rodeo,” and “bronco.” Our favorite has to be “ten-gallon hat,” though.

This term was based on a mishearing of the Spanish galón, meaning “braid,” reflecting the braided hatbands that some vaqueros wore. But while galón and “gallon” may sound similar, these hats aren’t made to carry water, and you’re not likely to find one big enough for ten gallons even if they did!

A ten-gallon hat.
Good for covering heads, but not so much for carrying water.
(Photo: ealdgyth)

5. Literary Contributions: “Quixotic” and “Lothario”

As well as words borrowed from Spanish, English uses a few words inspired by Spanish writers. In fact, two terms come from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

The brilliant-but-deluded title character, for instance, gave us the word “quixotic,” meaning “hopeful but impractical.” And the same novel also gave us “lothario,” which means “a man whose chief interest is seducing women.”

With Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Cervantes also prefigured the “buddy movie.”

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We hope you’ve enjoyed our list of words that came to English via Spanish. If you have your own favorite words with Spanish origins, let us know in the comments!

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