12 English Words Derived from an Extinct Caribbean Language
When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, the first humans he encountered were the Taino, an Arawak people, then the most numerous group in the Caribbean, inhabiting what are now Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. They were skilled navigators and farmers with complex social systems, art, music, and poetry. But within half a century, diseases brought by the Spanish wiped out most of the Taino population. Traces of their civilization are preserved in words adopted by the Spanish that passed into English and other languages.
In a 1526 account of life in the Indies, Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés describes something called barbacoa, which was either a raised platform for storing grain and occasionally cooking food, or the particular method of cooking meat on that device. More than a century later, “barbacu’d” first appears in English, as a verb, in Edmund Hickeringill’s Jamaica Viewed (1661). Other travelers to Jamaica helped popularize barbecue cookery in England, and the word was adopted without reference to its other meanings.
The region takes its name from the indigenous people called in English Carib, from Spanish caribe, which comes from a word in the Arawakan language group (probably Taino) meaning human being.
Since different dialects of Taino interchanged l, n, and r sounds, when Columbus heard the name of the Caribe in Cuba, it sounded like "Caniba." The fierce tribe was believed to eat human flesh and the word—anglicized as “cannibal”—was generalized to mean man-eater.
Canoe, originally meaning a dugout like those used by the natives of the West Indies, entered English in the mid-1500s. It comes from Spanish canoa, which Columbus picked up from the Taino of modern day Haiti.
Confused about the difference between cay, key, (like the Florida Keys), and quay? You’re not alone. English speakers have been muddling them for centuries. The first two refer to a low bank or reef of coral, rock, or sand. Quay (pronounced “key”) is an artificial bank or landing stage, typically built of stone. Quay entered Middle English from Anglo-Norman. English got both cay and key from Spanish cayo. The Spanish word may come from Taino kaya or from French quai (which is pronounced “kay” and means quay). Originally, “cay” and “key” were the same word, sometimes spelled one way but pronounced the other.
Guava derives from Spanish guayaba, which comes (essentially unchanged) from Arawak wayaba.
Spanish colonists learned about hammocks from the Taino, who were protected from crawling critters in their suspended woven-bark beds. Hamaka is Haitian Taino for “fish net.” In the late 16th century, the British Royal Navy fitted out the gun decks of their ships with hammocks, which allowed sleeping sailors to sway with the motion of the ship instead of being pitched out of stationary bunks.
Speaking of things that could dislodge a sailor from his bunk, "hurricane" comes from Spanish huracán, from Taino hurakán, “god of the storm.”
The Spanish word for what speakers of American English call “corn,” mahiz (now maíz) first shows up in 1500 in Columbus’s diary. The Taino word was mahiz or mahís.
How could "potato" be of Taino origin? Potatoes don’t grow in the tropics; they’re from Peru, right? Right. But "potato" comes from the Spanish word patata, which comes from Taino batata, and refers to what we now call the sweet potato. Columbus introduced the plant to Spain in 1493. Later, Spanish explorers in the Andes encountered what we call potatoes. Spanish adopted the Quechua word papa for those tubers. English speakers used modifiers for the different kinds of “potatoes,” but confusion ensued anyway.
The word "savannah"—meaning an open plain of long grass, frequently with scattered drought-resistant trees—may bring East Africa to mind, but such grasslands also exist in the tropical West Indies. The Taino word zavana was adopted into post-classical Latin in 1516 as zauana and into Spanish in 1519 as çavana (now sabana). In the late 1600s, savannah began to be used in the English colonies of North America to mean a marsh, bog, or other damp or low-lying ground.
According to Oviedo (the explorer mentioned above under "barbecue"), the Spanish word tabaco comes unchanged from a Haitian Taino word for the pipe used for smoking, but in a 1552 work, Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas says the word applied to a roll of dried leaves that was smoked like a cigar. The American Heritage Dictionary says Spanish may have been influenced by a similar Arabic word for a Mediterranean medicinal plant.
Sources: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.); Library of Congress, Exhibits…Columbus and the Taino; Barbecue: a history; Oxford English Dictionary Online; New Oxford American Dictionary, (2nd ed.); Wikipedia, Taíno language.