When Spanish Words Become Our Own

Adopted and borrowed words enrich English

Alpaca
Una alpaca. (An alpaca.). Photo by Guido612; licensed via Creative Commons.

Rodeo, pronto, taco, enchilada — English or Spanish?

The answer, of course, is both. For English, like most languages, has expanded over the years through assimilation of words from other tongues. As people of different languages intermingle, inevitably some of the words of one language become words of the other.

It doesn't take someone who studies etymology to look at a Spanish-language website (or the websites in nearly any other language) to see how English vocabulary, particularly as it relates to technical subjects, is spreading.

And while English now may be giving more words to other languages than it is absorbing, that wasn't always true. For the English vocabulary today is as rich as it is largely because it accepted words from Latin (mostly by way of French). But there's also a small share of the English language that is derived from Spanish.

Many Spanish words have come to us from three primary sources: As you can hypothesize from the list below, many of them entered American English in the days of Mexican and/or Spanish cowboys working in what is now the U.S. Southwest. Words of Caribbean origin entered English by way of trade. The third major source is food vocabulary, especially for foods whose names have no English equivalent, as the intermingling of cultures has expanded our diets as well as our vocabulary. As you can see, many of the words changed meaning upon entering English, often by adopting a narrower meaning than in the original language.

Following is a list, by no means complete, of Spanish loanwords that have become assimilated into the English vocabulary. As noted, some of them were adopted into the Spanish language from elsewhere before they were passed on to English. Although most of them retain the spelling and even (more or less) the pronunciation of Spanish, they are all recognized as English words by at least one reference source.

  • adios (from adiós)
  • adobe (originally Coptic tobe, "brick")
  • aficionado
  • albino
  • alcove (from Spanish alcoba, originally Arabic al-qubba)
  • alfalfa (originally Arabic al-fasfasah. Many other English words beginning with "al" were originally Arabic, and many may have had a Spanish-language connection in becoming English.)
  • alligator (from el lagarto, "the lizard")
  • alpaca (animal similar to a llama, from Aymara allpaca)
  • armada
  • armadillo (literally, "the little armed one")
  • arroyo (English regionalism for "stream")
  • avocado (originally a Nahuatl word, ahuacatl)
  • bajada (a geological term referring to a type of alluvial slope at the base of a mountain, from bajada, meaning "slope")
  • banana (word, originally of African origin, entered English via either Spanish or Portuguese)
  • bandoleer (type of belt, from bandolera)
  • barbecue (from barbacoa, a word of Caribbean origin)
  • barracuda
  • bizarre (some sources, not all, say this word came from the Spanish bizarro)
  • bonanza (although the Spanish bonanza can be used synonymously with the English cognate, it more often means "calm seas" or "fair weather")
  • booby (from bobo, meaning "silly" or "selfish")
  • bravo (from either Italian or Old Spanish)
  • bronco (means "wild" or "rough" in Spanish)
  • buckaroo (possibly from vaquero, "cowboy")
  • bunco (probably from banco, "bank")
  • burrito (literally "little donkey")
  • burro
  • cafeteria (from cafetería)
  • caldera (geological term)
  • canary (Old Spanish canario entered English by way of French canarie)
  • canasta (the Spanish word means "basket")
  • cannibal (originally of Caribbean origin)
  • canoe (the word was originally Caribbean)
  • canyon (from cañón)
  • cargo (from cargar, "to load")
  • castanet (from castañeta)
  • chaparral (from chaparro, an evergreen oak)
  • chaps (from Mexican Spanish chaparreras)
  • chihuahua (dog breed named after Mexican city and state)
  • chile relleno (Mexican food)
  • chili (from chile, derived from Nahuatl chilli)
  • chili con carne (con carne means "with meat")
  • chocolate (originally xocolatl, from Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language)
  • churro (Mexican food)
  • cigar, cigarette (from cigarro)
  • cilantro
  • cinch (from cincho, "belt")
  • cocaine (from coca, from Quechua kúka)
  • cockroach (Two English words, "cock" and "roach," were combined to form "cockroach." It is believed, but isn't certain, that the words were chosen because of their similarity to the Spanish cucaracha.)
  • coco (type of tree, from icaco, originally Arawak ikaku from the Caribbean)
  • comrade (from camarada, "roommate")
  • condor (originally from Quechua, an indigenous South American language)
  • conquistador
  • corral
  • coyote (from the Nahuatl coyotl)
  • creole (from criollo)
  • criollo (English term refers to someone indigenous to South America; Spanish term originally referred to anyone from a particular locality)
  • dago (offensive ethnic term comes from Diego)
  • dengue (Spanish imported the word from Swahili)
  • (a type of windstorm that can be found in the U.S. Midwest)
  • desperado
  • dorado (type of fish)
  • El Niño (weather pattern, means "The Child" due to its appearance around Christmas)
  • embargo (from embargar, to bar)
  • enchilada (participle of enchilar, "to season with chili")
  • fajita (diminutive of faja, a belt or sash, probably so named due to strips of meat)
  • fiesta (in Spanish, it can mean a party, a celebration, a feast — or a fiesta)
  • filibuster (from filibustero, derived from Dutch vrijbuiter, "pirate")
  • flan (a type of custard)
  • flauta (a fried, rolled tortilla)
  • flotilla
  • frijol (English regionalism for a bean)
  • galleon (from Spanish galeón)
  • garbanzo (type of bean)
  • guacamole (originally from Nahuatl ahuacam, "avocado," and molli, "sauce")
  • guerrilla (In Spanish, the word refers to a small fighting force. A guerrilla fighter is a guerrillero.)
  • habanero (a type of pepper; in Spanish, the word refers to something from Havana)
  • hacienda (in Spanish, the initial h is silent)
  • hammock (from jamaca, a Caribbean Spanish word)
  • hoosegow (slang term for a jail comes from Spanish juzgado, participle of juzgar, "to judge")
  • huarache (type of sandal)
  • hurricane (from huracán, originally an indigenous Caribbean word)
  • iguana (originally from Arawak and Carib iwana)
  • incomunicado
  • jaguar (from Spanish and Portuguese, originally from Guarani yaguar)
  • jalapeño
  • jerky (the word for dried meat comes from charqui, which in turn came from the Quechua ch'arki)
  • jicama (originally from Nahuatl)
  • key (the word for a small island comes from the Spanish cayo, possibly of Caribbean origin)
  • lariat (from la reata, "the lasso")
  • lasso (from lazo)
  • llama (originally from Quechua)
  • machete
  • machismo
  • macho (macho usually means simply "male" in Spanish)
  • maize (from maíz, originally from Arawak mahíz)
  • manatee (from manatí, originally from Carib)
  • mano a mano (literally, "hand to hand")
  • margarita (a woman's name meaning "daisy")
  • mariachi (a type of traditional Mexican music, or a musician)
  • marijuana (usually mariguana or marihuana in Spanish)
  • matador (literally, "killer")
  • menudo (Mexican food)
  • mesa (In Spanish it means "table," but it also can mean "tableland," the English meaning.)
  • mesquite (tree name originally from Nahuatl mizquitl)
  • mestizo (a type of mixed ancestry)
  • mole (The name for this delightful chocolate-chili dish is sometimes misspelled as "molé" in English in an attempt to prevent mispronunciation.)
  • mosquito
  • mulatto (from mulato)
  • mustang (from mestengo, "stray")
  • nacho
  • nada (nothing)
  • negro (comes from either the Spanish or Portuguese word for the color black)
  • nopal (type of cactus, from Nahuatl nohpalli)
  • ocelot (originally Nahuatl oceletl; the word was adopted into Spanish and then French before becoming an English word)
  • olé (in Spanish, the exclamation can be used in places other than bullfights)
  • oregano (from orégano)
  • paella (a savory Spanish rice dish)
  • palomino (originally meant a white dove in Spanish)
  • papaya (originally Arawak)
  • patio (In Spanish, the word most often refers to a courtyard.)
  • peccadillo (from pecadillo, diminutive of pecado, "sin")
  • peso (Although in Spanish a peso is also a monetary unit, it more generally means a weight.)
  • peyote (originally Nahuatl peyotl)
  • picaresque (from picaresco)
  • pickaninny (offensive term, from pequeño, "small")
  • pimento (Spanish pimiento)
  • pinole (a meal made of grain and beans; originally Nahuatl pinolli)
  • pinta (tropical skin disease)
  • pinto (Spanish for "spotted" or "painted")
  • piñata
  • piña colada (literally meaning "strained pineapple")
  • piñon (type of pine tree, sometimes spelled "pinyon")
  • plantain (from plátano or plántano)
  • plaza
  • poncho (Spanish adopted the word from Araucanian, an indigenous South American language)
  • potato (from batata, a word of Caribbean origin)
  • pronto (from an adjective or adverb meaning "quick" or "quickly")
  • pueblo (in Spanish, the word can mean simply "people")
  • puma (originally from Quechua)
  • punctilio (from puntillo, "little point," or possibly from Italian puntiglio)
  • quadroon (from cuaterón)
  • quesadilla
  • quirt (type of riding whip, comes from Spanish cuarta)
  • ranch (Rancho often means "ranch" in Mexican Spanish, but it can also mean a settlement, camp or meal rations.)
  • reefer (drug slang, possibly from Mexican Spanish grifa, "marijuana")
  • remuda (regionalism for a relay of horses)
  • renegade (from renegado)
  • rodeo
  • rumba (from rumbo, originally referring to the course of a ship and, by extension, the revelry aboard)
  • salsa (In Spanish, almost any kind of a sauce or gravy can be referred to as salsa.)
  • sarsaparilla (from zarza, "bramble," and parrilla, "small vine")
  • sassafras (from sasafrás)
  • savanna (from obsolete Spanish çavana, originally Taino zabana, "grassland")
  • savvy (from sabe, a form of the verb saber, "to know")
  • serape (Mexican blanket)
  • serrano (type of pepper)
  • shack (possibly from Mexican Spanish jacal, from the Nahuatl xcalli, "adobe hut")
  • siesta
  • silo
  • sombrero (In Spanish, the word, which is derived from sombra, "shade," can mean almost any kind of hat, not just the traditional broad-rimmed Mexican hat.)
  • spaniel (ultimately from hispania, the same root that gave us the words "Spain" and español)
  • stampede (from estampida)
  • stevedore (from estibador, one who stows or packs things)
  • stockade (from a French derivation of the Spanish estacada, "fence" or "stockade")
  • taco (In Spanish, a taco can refer to a stopper, plug or wad. In other words, a taco originally meant a wad of food. Indeed, in Mexico, the variety of tacos is almost endless, far more varied than the beef, lettuce and cheese combination of U.S.-style fast food.)
  • tamale (The Spanish singular for this Mexican dish is tamal. The English comes from an erroneous backformation of the Spanish plural, tamales.)
  • tamarillo (type of tree, derived from tomatillo, a small tomato)
  • tango
  • tejano (type of music)
  • tequila (named after a Mexican town of the same name)
  • tobacco (from tabaco, a word possibly of Caribbean origin)
  • tomatillo
  • tomato (from tomate, derived from Nahuatl tomatl)
  • toreador
  • tornado (from tronada, thunderstorm)
  • tortilla (in Spanish, an omelet often is a tortilla)
  • tuna (from atún)
  • vamoose (from vamos, a form of "to go")
  • vanilla (from vainilla)
  • vaquero (English regionalism for a cowboy)
  • vicuña (animal similar to a llama, from Quechua wikuña)
  • vigilante (from adjective for "vigilant")
  • vinegarroon (from vinagrón)
  • wrangler (some sources say word is derived from Mexican Spanish caballerango, one who grooms horses, while other sources say the word comes from German)
  • yucca (from yuca, originally a Caribbean word)
  • zapateado (a type of dance emphasizing movement of the heels)