Where Do English Words Come From?
If you know anything at all about language and the way it evolves, then you know that there are no thoroughbred languages in existence — only mutts of varying degrees. English may belong to the Germanic language family, but it contains a multitude of words that come from French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and beyond. English word origins are far, and they are many.
A brief synopsis of the history of English will tell you why. In the very beginning, there was Common Brittonic, spoke by British Celts. The influence of the Romans threw Latin into the mix, then the Anglo-Saxons made proto-English into Old English. Then the Latin alphabet replaced runes, then the Vikings invaded, bringing their Old Norse words with them. In the 11th century, the Norman Conquest brought thousands of new French words into the fold. Old English became Middle English. With all of these changes, it’s perhaps not a surprise that Old English is completely impenetrable to the modern-day English speaker, and the story still isn’t over. During the Renaissance period in the 16th century, more Latin and Greek terms were added to the English dictionary.
Since then, migration patterns, and more recently, globalization, made the linguistic soup into even more of a stew. There are modern-day English word origins that come from Japanese, Zulu, Ukrainian, Sanskrit, Polynesian and Māori. Loanwords, or words borrowed from other languages, exist in just about every language. Considering English has the widest global reach as a second language or a lingua franca, it makes sense it would intermingle with other languages to a greater extent than any other.
Some languages contributed a greater share of vocabulary to the English language than others. There are over 150,000 English words that came from Greek, which includes words like music, cinema and marmalade. There are hundreds of Spanish words lurking in English, thanks in large part to the proximity and shifting borders between the United States and Mexico. Roughly 30 percent of English word origins are actually French. The Norman Conquest was a huge deal! And, seeing that English is a relative of German, it only makes sense that we all went to kindergarten.
Below, you can find out more about the everyday words you use and where they actually come from. Then, if you’re game, test your knowledge with a quiz.
An Anthology Of English Word Origins
52 English Words That Are Actually German
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21 English Words That Are Actually Greek (And The Stories Behind Them)
From the marmalade adorning our morning toasts, to the music we play and the dramas we watch at the cinema, the Ancient Greeks have thoroughly infiltrated the modern English we speak today.
111 English Words That Are Actually Spanish
You may be surprised to learn that there are hundreds of Spanish words hidden in English. In fact, English has been borrowing from Spanish for a very long time.
79 English Words That Are Actually Italian
Though English is descended from a different family — Italian is a Romance language, English a Germanic — English was heavily influenced by one of Italian’s ancestors: Latin.
31 English Words That Are Actually French
It’s estimated that 30 percent of English words come from French, but you probably don’t recognize all of them.
139 Old Norse Words That Invaded The English Language
Without the Vikings, English would be missing some pretty awesome words like berserk, ugly, muck, skull, knife, die and cake!
Eponyms Everywhere: 8 English Words That Came From Names
When you boycott a business or play the saxophone, you’re putting eponyms to use! Here are 8 common words that derive from people’s names.
11 English Words With Strange and Surprising Origins
Ever wonder why it’s called a ‘seersucker suit’ or where the word ‘avocado’ comes from? Read on for these answers and more.
Quiz: Do You Know Where These English Words Are Originally From?
Once you’ve learned about the many origins of English words, test your etymology knowledge with this fun quiz.