San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In Other Words: Spanish in English

Given the history

of the American


it is not surprising that

Spanish and English

have so affected each

other. Certainly, English

has contributed a

lot to Spanish, but

some scholars claim

that Spanish has contributed

about 10,000

words to English.

Many of these are food terms used in their

original Spanish forms, such as “tamales,”

“taco,” “salsa,” “guacamole,” “enchilada,”

“burrito,” “tortilla,” “nachos,” etc. Others are

variations or even misunderstandings of the

original. Some food words are of indigenous

origin, but came into English via Spanish.

The Náhuatl (Aztec) word “tomatl” became

tomate” in Spanish and “tomato” in English.

The Náhuatl word “xocolatl” became “chocolate”

in both languages. “Papaya” came from

the West Indies Arawak word “papaya.”

“Banana,” on the other hand, entered Spanish

from the West African languages of

Wolof, Mandingo and Fulani.

A number of animal words also went

directly from indigenous languages into

Spanish and then English. “Puma” originated

in Quechua (Inca), while “jaguar” comes

from “yaguar,” a word of the Guaraní who

live in what is now Paraguay. “Iguana” is a

modification of “iwana,” used by the Arawak

and Carib of the West Indies. “Coyote” is the

same in Spanish and comes from the

Náhuatl “coyotl.” Others come directly from

Spanish: an “armadillo” is the same in Spanish

and means “little armed one.” “Cockroach”

comes from “cucaracha,” and “condor”

is the same in both languages. “Mosquito”

is a diminutive of “mosca,” meaning

“fly”; thus a mosquito is a “little fly.” It is

used the same way we use it in much of Latin

America, but in Costa Rica a “mosquito” really

is a little fly, while what we call “mosquito”

is a “zancudo,” or “long-legged one” (the

word for “stilt” is “zanco”).

When English-speaking explorers reached

what is now the U.S. Southwest in the early

19th century, they encountered an established

Mexican culture. This provided English

with many everyday words. Since the

horse was an essential part of frontier life for

both Mexicans and English speakers, some

of these words involve horseback riding.

Rodear,” means “to go around,” and “rodeo

variously means “detour,” “evasion” or

“roundup.”“Lasso” comes from “lazo,” meaning

“bow” or “knot.” “Lariat” comes from “la

riata,” meaning “the rope.” A “pinto,” meaning

“painted” in Spanish, is a horse with two

colors splashed on its body, while a “paint”

has three. “Mustang” comes from “mestengo

or “mesteño,” a stray or ownerless animal.

The word “hackamore” is a distortion of

jáquima,” which means “restraint” or “bit,”

and comes from the Arabic “shaqïmah.”

“Ranch,” a common English word today,

hails from the Mexican Spanish “rancho,”

meaning “ranch,” “settlement” or “meat

ration,” but which here in Costa Rica refers

to a small, round, open structure with a

thatch roof. “Arroyo” comes from “arroyo,”

but in Spanish means “stream,” rather than a

gulch. “Corral,” on the other hand, means

the same in both languages.

Even a few cowboy slang words come

from Spanish. “Buckaroo” comes from

vaquero,” meaning “cowboy.” “Juzgado,”

meaning “tribunal” or “courtroom,” gave us

“hoosegow,” while “vamoose” comes from

vamos” or “vámonos,” “let’s go.” “Bronco” is

the same word in both languages, but simply

means “wild” or “rough” in Spanish. Finally,

the Spanish word for “horse,” “caballo,”

became “cabayo” in cowboy lingo, and refers

to a nag. You may even remember the lyrics

to the song “Strawberry Roan”: “Down in

the corral standing alone was an old cabayo,

a strawberry roan.”

The word “savvy” comes from “saber,” “to

know”; “sabe,” then, means “he/she knows.”

Some of you may remember the Lone Ranger,

who called his faithful Indian guide “Tonto,”

or “stupid,” and was called by the same “Kemo

Sabe,” that is “Quien Sabe,”“Who Knows,” or,

perhaps mistakenly, “He Who Knows,” “El

Que Sabe.” Does anybody know whether that

was a joke or true prejudice?

Just for the record, here is a partial list of

other words that passed to English from


algebra             algebra, from the Arabic aljabr, the reunion of broken parts, or bone setting

cafeteria           cafetería, “coffee store”

canyon             cañón

comrade           camarada, old Spanish for “barracks company” or “roommate”

crimson            from old Spanish “cremesín

filibuster            filibustero, “pirate”

flotilla               flota, “fleet”; flotilla, “little fleet”

guerrilla            guerra, “war”; guerrilla, “small war,” referring to a small raiding party or fighting force

hammock         hamaca

macho              macho, “male” (for some reason, it also means “blonde” in Costa Rica)

maroon             cimarrón, “wild”

peccadillo         pecado, “sin”; pecadillo, “little sin”

renegade          renegado, “one who has abandoned his religion or his principles” (“negar” means “to deny”)

tobacco            tabaco

tornado            tornado, the past participle of tornar, “to turn”

vanilla               vainilla

yam                  ñame

All of these cases make some kind of sense. Next time, we’ll take a look at some examples of Spanish words that have stumbled and bumbled their way into English.

Comments are closed.