14 Words English Stole (Borrowed) From Other Languages

3 min read

While uniquely American or British words exist, most of the words in an English dictionary have a root in another tongue. We might lift a word directly from French and maintain the spelling and pronunciation (café), or we could make a mashup inspired by Japanese (emoji). Let's examine some of the most common words and phrases, AKA loanwords, that got their start in another language.

RSVP

This popular acronym shows up on invites as a request to confirm if you’re attending an event. It’s a French phrase, répondez s’il vous plaît, meaning “please reply.” The French don’t really use this request (or the abbreviation) anymore, but in English-speaking nations, it’s become common shorthand on invitations.

Café

Another French word that’s supremely well known in English is café (in fact, about half of the English language has roots in French and Latin). Dating back to the 19th century, this word still means coffee or coffee house.

Emoji

Thought the word we use to describe the little graphics on your phone was crafted in Silicon Valley? Think again – emoji comes from Japan (as do so many things cute and small). The meaning is quite simple: the “e” is commonly used to denote something electronic, while moji means letter or character in Japanese.

Entrepreneur

Yet another French fave, entrepreneurs are people who start their own business. In the 19th century, the French took the verb entreprendre, meaning to undertake, and started applying it to people who undertake an endeavor or manage something. Naturellement, the first French entrepreneurs were in the theater world, referring to stage or production managers.

Paparazzi

This Italian-bred word is a well-known label applied to photographers who sell photos of celebrities and other high-profile individuals. The source of the word is appropriately starry: celebrated Italian filmmaker Fedorici Fellini's 1960 classic La Dolce Vita features a character named Paparazzo, a news photographer. That moniker is inspired by an Italian word for an annoying noise, like a buzzing mosquito – or a clicking camera shutter.

Doppelgänger

Hailing from Germany, you’d call someone or something a doppelgänger if it was the spitting image of something else. The literal meaning couldn’t be clearer – in German the word translates to “double-goer.”

Bagel

Quite a few Yiddish words have made their way into English, including klutz, spiel, and glitch. Bagel is a direct descendant of the Yiddish beygel from the early 20th century. But in a twist, that word also ties into the Middle High German böugel, meaning ring. This draws from the Old High German bouc, with the same meaning. That’s a lot of history in one bagel.

Siesta

If you’re looking to enjoy a brief rest or nap, you may go down for a siesta. You might already know this as a Spanish tradition, but the word’s origins go back to the Latin phrase sexta hora, referring to the sixth hour. The sixth hour was counted from dawn, generally making midday the perfect time for a siesta.

Guru

The Sanskrit word means weighty or grave, making perfect sense that this respectful word is applied to elders, teachers, and wise mentors.

Diva

Italians have a flair for the dramatic, hence words like diva – applied to notoriously self-important and temperamental people. While it also has a more professional application of referring to female opera singers, most of us use "diva" when talking about our fussy cats or overdramatic bosses.

Kindergarten

Kids start their school career with kindergarten, a German word literally meaning “garden of children.” The term was coined by German educator Freidrich Frobel in 1840. He believed that children should be encouraged to learn through play, and they should be nurtured as we do plants in a garden.

Déjà Vu

Some borrowed words slip by unnoticed in their foreignness, but the soft, hushed sounds of déjà vu are recognizably not English. This French phrase means “already seen” and is used in English to describe uncanny experiences we feel like we’ve somehow already encountered.

Wanderlust

This seemingly English word – referring to a strong desire to travel – is originally German and was first adopted in 1902. It comes from two German words: wandern (to hike) and lust (desire), though today German speakers would be more likely use the term fernweh, meaning farsick. Its antonym is homesick, taken from another German word, heimweh.

Karaoke

If you love to sing along to cheesy backing vocals, you’re taking part in the Japanese art of karaoke. The literal Japanese translation is “empty orchestra,” but the term was applied to the fun singalong activity introduced in the late 20th century.

You Might Also Like:

Chat bubbles backgroundDaily QuestionWhat is a conurbation?

Start defining your knowledge

Get daily words and quizzes sent straight to your inbox!

By subscribing to Word Genius you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.