10 Words With Roots in Lesser-Known Languages

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Vocabulary.com, posted by Arika Okrent

English has borrowed words from all over the world to make up its lexicon. Our friends at Vocabulary.com compiled this list of ten relatively common words with historical roots in languages that are less well known for supplying English words than Latin, Greek, and the traditional Germanic and Romance languages.


someone who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea without having a commission from any sovereign nation

The direct ancestor of buccaneer is French for "user of a boucan"—boucan being a type of grill. But the grill itself and the word boucan both have their source in the indigenous peoples of Brazil, where the word in Tupi is rendered mukem.


a small gift (especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase)

From New Orleans Creole, the origins of lagniappe are slightly murky. One popular theory has it deriving from Spanish la ñapa (one of the few words in Spanish to begin with ñ) which means "the gift." La ñapa comes from yapa, a word from Quechua, a native language family of the Andes mountains.


someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field

This word comes from Yiddish meyvn, which means "one who understands." It was a favorite of the late William Safire, a self-styled language maven.


a small house with a single story

The word entered English from Gujarati, spoken in India. The Gujarati word bangalo in turn comes from a Hindi word meaning "Bengalese, in the style of Bengal."


tall annual cereal grass bearing kernels on large ears: widely cultivated in America in many varieties

The indigenous word for "corn" entered English from Cuban Spanish maiz. Spanish got it from Arawakan, the language of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, where the form is mahiz.


loud confused noise from many sources

The word was originally whobub, either from Gaelic ub! which was an expression of contempt, or an Old Irish battle cry, abu.


a favorite saying of a sect or political group

This is another word from Gaelic and is also related to battle cries. Slogan comes from sluagh-ghairm, literally "army-cry."


take arbitrarily or by force

The South African language of Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, gave rise to this word. It comes from kommandeeren, Afrikaans for "to command."


the point above the observer that is directly opposite the nadir on the imaginary sphere against which celestial bodies appear to be projected

This word is originally from Arabic samt ar-ras, which means "the way over the head." The "m" in samt was misread as an "ni," so it became sanit when it was borrowed into Latin, eventually resulting in zenith.


pull along heavily, like a heavy load against a resistance

This word is from Yiddish, where a schlepper is not just a dragger but a scrounger or loser, less worthy of pity than a nebbish. The nebbish has misfortune thrust upon him, whereas the schlepper has a hand in his bad luck. The verb schlep is first attested in English in James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922.

To see more words from lesser known-languages and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.