English Words Borrowed From the Americas

16 January, 2018

On a recent program, we told you the stories of some English words borrowed from Japanese. Today, we will tell you about words English has taken from languages of the Americas.

The Americas include North America, South America and the Caribbean.

When Europeans arrived in the land now known as North America, millions of indigenous people were already living there.

Indigenous Americans are often called Native Americans and sometimes American Indians. Archaeologists say that indigenous people had inhabited North America for some 30,000 years before Europeans settlers arrived.

Eventually, the settlers would forcibly remove many of them from their land. Others died of European diseases.

Native Americans lost nearly all of this land during the American conquest. Today, they make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

And yet, English has kept a large number of indigenous words, including the names of places, animals, plants and foods.

Most of the words that English has borrowed come from the Algonquian group of languages. The word Algonquian also refers to the group of tribes that speak those languages.

Map showing the Great Lakes region in the U.S. The word Michigan comes from the word mishigamaa, meaning
Map showing the Great Lakes region in the U.S. The word Michigan comes from the word mishigamaa, meaning "large lake." Michigan is also the name of the state next to this lake.

Algonquian languages were spoken – and some are still spoken – along North America's Atlantic Coast, from Canada to South Carolina, and west to the Great Plains.

Let's start with U.S. place names.

U.S. state names

It is not very well known – even by Americans -- that 26 U.S. states are named after Native American tribes or their lands. That is more than half of the states.

For example, Alabama is named for the Alibamu tribe and Kansas is named for the Kansa, or Kaw, tribe. The word Kansa is believed to mean "people of the south wind," though that is probably not its original meaning.

Many of our town, river and lake names are also Native American in origin. For example, two of the Great Lakes – Erie and Michigan – are Algonquian words. The word "Michigan" comes from the word mishigamaa, meaning "large lake." Michigan is also the name of the state next to this lake. And Erie comes from the Eriehonon people.

Gary McCone is the head of Library and Information Services for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

He told VOA that the reason so many Native American place names were used is likely because early European explorers needed a way to communicate with local native people. Changing place names would have made that more difficult.

The names of dozens of common American animals are also from Algonquian languages. They include chipmunk, moose, caribou, opossum, raccoon and skunk.

In addition to Algonquian languages, English has borrowed words from the Nahuatl language of Central America and the Arawak languages of the Caribbean and South America.


For example, the name of another animal common to America, the coyote, comes from Nahuatl. A coyote is a small, dog-like animal with large ears. The original Nahuatl word was coyotl. The word first passed through the Spanish language before becoming part of English.

The word coyote was borrowed from the Nahuatl word coyotl. The coyote is a wild, dog-like animal that is common to North America.
The word coyote was borrowed from the Nahuatl word coyotl. The coyote is a wild, dog-like animal that is common to North America.


Here's another example from Nahuatl: chocolate. Spaniards also first borrowed this word before it reached English. The Nahuatl word for chocolate is xocolatl. Mesoamericans grew and consumed cacao for centuries before Europeans came into contact with it.

The word xocolatl was originally the name for an ancient, fermented Mesoamerican drink made from ground cacao seeds. Then, in the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors observed how native people valued cacao beans. They took them back with them to Spain.

The Arawak languages of the Caribbean and South America, such as the Taino language, have also given the English language many words. Two of them are hammock and barbecue.


In English, the word hammock is a kind of hanging bed made from cloth. The cloth is hung between two poles or trees. It comes from the Taino word hamaka of the indigenous people of the island of Hispanola. It once meant "stretch of cloth." Hammock is another example of a word that passed through Spanish first before reaching English.

Native people of Central and South America first developed and used hammocks. Years later, sailors used them on boats to sleep more comfortably and make good use of a small space. Explorers and soldiers also used them in forested areas.

Today, hammocks are very popular among Americans.


Another word of Taino origin is barbecue. The English meaning refers to a method of cooking over an open fire using wood (or charcoal) and a grill. Barbecue is also the word for the cooking device used in this cooking method.

The indigenous word was barabicu and meant "structure of sticks set upon posts." It referred to the raised wooden structures that indigenous Caribbeans used to cure meat on or to sleep on. Other language research says it meant "sacred pit."

After Christopher Columbus reached America in 1492, Spaniards came across indigenous Taino people roasting meat barbecue style. In 1526, a Spanish explorer was the first person to use the word in Spain, when he wrote of "barbecoa" in a Spanish dictionary.

Back in the Americas, as Spanish conquistadors began to travel north into what are now the southern United States, they brought along the barbecue cooking method.

Today, most Americans use at least one Native American word each day as they talk about places, foods, animals and other things. Join us again soon to learn the history of English words borrowed from other languages.

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Phil Dierking.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

indigenous – adj. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

conquest – n. the act of taking control of a country, city, etc., through the use of force

Mesoamerican – n. relating to or characteristic of the region of the southern part of North America or its inhabitants.

cacao – n. the dried seeds of a tropical tree that are used to make cocoa and chocolate

conquistador – n. a leader in the Spanish conquests of America, Mexico, and Peru in the 16th century

charcoal – n. a hard black material that is made by burning wood with a small amount of air

cure – v. to change something through a chemical or physical process so that it can be preserved for a long time