11 Common English Words from Native American Languages

iStock/Bouillante
iStock/Bouillante

You’re probably well aware that tepee, totem, and toboggan are all Native American names for familiar objects, but what about hickory, jerky, and tobacco? Native American languages gave us scores of words for things we frequently use—not to mention the many states, rivers, and towns that evolved from Native American names.

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month in November, we’ve compiled a list of 11 words commonly used in English that were coined by Indigenous groups across the Americas.

1. Opossum

The Native American name of North America’s resident marsupial comes from the Virginia Algonquian word opassum (alternately spelled aposoum), which means “white dog” or “white beast” in the Powhatan language. Skunk, coyote, raccoon, moose, woodchuck, and caribou are a few of the other animals that owe their names to Native American tribes.

2. Squash

When English settlers first arrived in North America, they used squash as a verb (meaning to crush something) and, more arcanely, to refer to an unripe pea pod. However, they were unfamiliar with the fruit we now know as squash, according to Merriam-Webster. The Narragansett tribe from present-day New England called it askútasquash, which was eventually shortened to squash in English.

3. Chocolate

This delicious treat comes to us from nature, but we can thank Indigenous Mesoamericans for this Native American name. The word chocolate comes from Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs (many Indigenous people in Mexico speak dialects of Nahuatl today). The Aztecs would make a drink from ground cacao seeds called chikolatl.

4. Hammock

A woman in a hammock
iStock.com/BartCo

This word comes from hamaca, whose origins are slightly unclear: It could be from the now-extinct Taíno language (once spoken by Indigenous people in the Caribbean), or from a related Arawakan language. It originally referred to a “stretch of cloth” and entered the English language via the Spanish (who still call it a hamaca).

5. Barbecue

This also comes from a Taíno word—barbacòa—and entered English via Spanish explorers who must have thought the cooking method was pretty nifty. It originally meant “structure of sticks set upon posts” and was first recorded in print as barbecoa in Spanish in 1526.

6. Avocado

Sorry, avocado trivia lovers, but the story that this word originally meant testicle isn’t quite right. According to Nahuatl scholar Magnus Pharao Hansen, the Nahuatl name for the fruit, ahuacatl, was also slang for testicle, but only ever slang. The word ahuacatl chiefly described the fruit. It entered Spanish in the late 1600s as aguacate, and was eventually Anglicized as avocado.

7. Guacamole

In a similar vein, guacamole stems from two Nahuatl words: ahuacatl (avocado) and molli (sauce). Mix them together and they make ahuacamolli. Molli, as fans of chicken mole enchiladas will know, was later spelled mole in Mexican Spanish. Tomato (tomatl), chili (chilli), and chipotle (chilli + poctli, meaning something smoked) are a few other food words that come to us from Nahuatl.

8 and 9. Canoe and Kayak

Two people kayak near glaciers
iStock.com/Caval

Canoe and kayak are both Indigenous words, but they were coined by different tribes. Kayak can be traced back to the Inuit of present-day Greenland, who call the long boat qajaq. The word is also present throughout the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan languages. Canoe, on the other hand, comes from the Arawakan word canaoua. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, early spellings of canoe were cano, canow, and the Spanish canoa, “before spelling settled down” in the 18th century.

10. Poncho

Indigenous peoples in central Chile who speak Araucanian languages dubbed their shawl-like “woolen fabric” a pontho. They were often worn by huasos, or cowboys, who lived in central and southern Chile. Nowadays, ponchos are commonplace throughout Latin America.

11. Hurricane

The Maya believed in a “god of the storm,” and they called it Hunrakan. This same word was picked up throughout Central America and the Caribbean to refer to an evil deity. Spanish explorers in the Caribbean changed the spelling to huracán and used it to describe the weather phenomenon, and it was finally introduced into English by the 16th century.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Words With Difficult-to-Remember Meanings

Can you keep the definitions of these words straight?
Can you keep the definitions of these words straight?
Satenik_Guzhanina/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Sometimes there are words that you've seen, read, and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick. From our friends at Vocabulary.com, here are 10 words with definitions that can be difficult to remember. Some look like they have a negative element in them, but either because their positive counterpoint has fallen out of use or because it never existed in the first place, the word doesn't really have a negative sense. Other words below are often confused for their opposite or have come to have connotations not quite reflected in their dictionary definitions.

1. Nonplussed

The Definition: “Filled with bewilderment”

If it looks like there's a negative at the beginning of this word, it's because etymologically speaking, there is—it's from Latin non plus, "no more, no further." Still, there is no word plussed, and that can get confusing.

2. Inchoate

The Definition: “Only partly in existence; imperfectly formed”

It may look like the in- at the start of this word would be the same as the one at the start of words like incomplete or inadequate. Although that may be a good way to remember it, the first letters of this word are not a negative. The word comes from Latin inchoare, which meant "to begin." Inchoate things are often just beginning.

3. and 4. Cachet and Panache

The Definitions: “an indication of approved or superior status”; “distinctive and stylish elegance,” respectively

Shades of meaning between cachet and panache are often confused. Cachet is more about prestige, and panache is more about style. Having high tea at Buckingham Palace can have a lot of cachet in your social circle, but the genteel way you sip your tea can have a lot of panache.

5. Indefatigable

The Definition: “Showing sustained enthusiastic action with unflagging vitality”

In Latin, it was possible to defatigare, or "to tire out," but only the negative version prefixed with in- survived the journey into English (via French). Indefatigable is a word you almost have to say quickly, and if you get through all those syllables, it's almost as if you've proven the definition: It takes "unflagging vitality" to reach the end.

6. Uncanny

The Definition: “Surpassing the ordinary or normal”

The word canny is rare but not unknown as a word that means "cunning" or "sly." The only problem is that that's not the meaning of canny contained in uncanny. Canny used to mean "knowing and careful," and therefore uncanny meant "mischievous," coming to refer to supernatural spirits who toyed with mortals. Comic book fans have a huge head start with this word, having grown up with the Uncanny X-Men, who all have supernatural powers.

7. Unabashed

The Definition: “Not embarrassed”

This word is one where the positive version did exist but has fallen out of use. Abash meant "perplex, embarrass, lose one's composure" in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, so unabashed means "not embarrassed."

8. Dilatory

The Definition: “Wasting time”

This word is confusing because it sounds like it's potentially related to words like dilate or even depilatory. It's not related to either of those words, but luckily there are ways to remember what dilatory actually means—the word almost sounds like delay or dilly dally, both of which relate to the word's definition.

9. Martinet

The Definition: “Someone who demands exact conformity to rules and forms”

This word looks and sounds like marionette, the stringed puppet, which is a pitfall to avoid, because it can lead you to believe that martinet means the exact opposite of what it actually means. A martinet has some power, and no one is pulling their strings.

10. Hoi Polloi

The Definition: “The common people generally”

This is confusing because it's an obscure word for the common folk, and sometimes it's hard to keep straight whether the upper or lower crust is being discussed. Hoi polloi literally means "the many," with polloi being the plural of the well-known Greek prefix poly.

To see more words with difficult-to-remember meanings, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.