Sixteen English Words that come from Other Countries

People often make the mistake of thinking the English language is a self-contained unity. That it originates entirely from English-speaking countries and people.

This could not be further from the truth.

The English language is informed by other languages, other countries and other people outside of all the main English-speaking countries. These places and people have given us phrases and words that we use all the time.

Some people may assume that these words are English through and through. Well, they are. But they also came from other cultures and other languages.

This is how language works. All languages are in a state of constant flux and the English language is no different.

In fact, as English is the main language of the world, it is open to all kinds of changes from every country of the world.

Once you start looking at this, it becomes a fascinating study of language itself

But for today, let’s look at sixteen words that originated from other countries. But we use these words all the time in modern English.

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started!


Long Time No See

Source: China

This phrase has been around a long time since the early 1900s and experts believe it originated from the Cantonese dialect of China.

It is said to be translated directly from the same phrase in Chinese.



Source: The Aztecs

This word comes via the Aztecs of ancient Mexico. It was originally an ancient word, then via Mexican-Spanish, it became xocolatl, then finally chocolate.

The Aztecs made it into a special drink, but now we use the word to describe the bitter-sweet snack that we love today.



Source: Persia

We all know this word to mean the loose clothing we wear to bed at night-time.

But this word originally comes from Persia.

When the British were in Persia in the 1800s, they saw that the local people wore loose-fitting garments they referred to as pai jamahs. The British adopted the use of these clothes and the word evolved into pyjamas.



Source: Greece

We use this word to describe someone who does not wish to reveal their true identity.

It comes from the Greek word Anōnumos, which means someone or something without a name.



Source: Spain

We know this to mean something to smoke, made from dried tobacco and rolled into a cylinder.

The word originates from the Spanish word cigarro. This, in turn, came from the ancient Mayan word, sicar.

Tobacco comes from South America so this is why the word for cigar comes from this part of the world. The Spanish Armada went to South America and brought tobacco back to Europe.



Source: France

We all know this word to describe a very old style of dancing. It comes from France because the dance style of ballet originated in France. So we use the original French word.

You should take care in pronouncing this word. We pronounce it with a silent T, like this — /ˈbæleɪ/.

The silent T is very common in French and we use similar words such as buffet.



Source: Italy

To mean the photographers that swarm outside nightclubs and arrival lounges of airports waiting for celebrities. They then sell whatever pictures they can take to news organisations.

The word is actually the plural of Paparazzo, a character in the Italian movie La Dolce Vita in 1960. This character hangs around well-known cafes and waits for celebrities to take their picture.

The word is derived from another word that means mosquito. This is because the paparazzi often use motorbikes to chase after famous people. The buzzing sound of the motorbikes sounds like a mosquito.



Source: Japan

This is a large wave from the sea after an earthquake underwater. Most tsunamis are non-threatening but some can be deadly.

This word became more widely known after the tragic tsunami in South East Asia in 2004.



Source: India

To mean a person of higher understanding or a spiritual leader. Now it has come to mean someone who is an expert on a particular subject.

He’s something of a guru in the IT department.

The word came into use in the English language during the British occupation of India.



Source: Germany

This is taken directly from the German word for a school for very young children — namely, children’s garden.

This word is used practically everywhere around the world, across most Asian countries people will know this word. And maybe assume that it is English, when in fact it is German.



Source: India

This means cash or money. It is quite an old term that is perhaps going out of fashion these days.

But its original meaning is ill-gotten cash or good that a thief is trying to hide. It became part of the English language during the British Empire and its occupation of India.



Source: France

Another word from France, namely because this style of restaurant is from French culture. You can write it with an accent — café — or without — cafe. Both are acceptable in English.

Cafe is the French word for coffee. And this is thought to be the origin of the word. A small relaxed restaurant that serves coffee.



Source: Italy

There can’t be many people that do not know the meaning of the word cartoon!

But did you know that it comes from Italy?

It originally comes from the Italian word carton, which was a simple drawing on paper popular in Italy in the 1800s.


Faux Pas

Source: France

We use this phrase to describe when someone makes an error or gaffe in a social setting.

These can differ from one culture to another but in England, a common faux pas is to not queue or line up in a supermarket, bank or post office. If you do this, you could say: I committed the terrible faux pas of not getting in line while in the UK.

As with many other words in French, the X and the P in faux pas are silent.



Source: Spain

This word describes a short nap that people take in the afternoon, usually after lunch.

It originates from Spain because it is the culture in Spain to sleep for a short time after lunch as it is so hot.

Now in English, the word siesta is very common. We all know that it means to sleep for a short time.



Source: Arabic

This is a place, similar to a zoo, in which we can observe animals in a natural environment rather than seeing them stuck in cages.

But the word comes from the Arabic language. The original word was safara, meaning ‘a journey’.

It has been a part of the English language since the 1800s.



These are only a few words in the English language that originated from other countries and cultures. There are quite literally hundreds of others.

Studying etymology of English words can be a fascinating subject.

Perhaps you know of some words in your own language that sound like something used in English? Maybe this word comes from your country or culture. If you know of any examples why not leave a message below?

2 thoughts on “Sixteen English Words that come from Other Countries”

  1. I love this topic and yes it is true. In fact I think one reason that English is one of the largest language in the world is that it is a great collector of words from other languages. It rolls around like a snowball collecting bits and pieces from around the world. This is not to mention poplar foods such as ‘tacos’ and ‘tortillas’!

    1. Language truly is a fascinating subject. I don’t think there is one language on the planet that is completely ‘pure’. All languages are informed by other languages. There are also English words that are transformed and used in other languages. Maybe I should write something about that too!

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