What are Loanwords?

Definition and Examples

In lexicology, a loanword (also spelled loan word) is a word (or lexeme) imported into one language from another language. Also called a borrowed word or a borrowing.

Over the past 1,500 years, English has adopted words from more than 300 other languages. "Loanwords make up a huge proportion of the words in any large dictionary of English," notes Philip Durkin. "They also figure largely in the language of everyday communication and some are found even among the most basic vocabulary of English" (Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English, 2014).

The term loanword, from the German Lehnwort, is an example of a calque or loan translation. The terms loanword and borrowing are, at best, imprecise. As countless linguists have pointed out, it's extremely unlikely that a borrowed word will ever be returned to the donor language.

Examples and Observations

Guest Words, Foreign Words, and Loan Words

  • "A threefold distinction derived from German is applied by scholars to loan words on the basis of their degree of assimilation in the new host language. A Gastwort ('guest word') retains its original pronunciation, spelling, and meaning. Examples are passé from French, diva from Italian, and leitmotiv from German. A Fremdwort ('foreign word') has undergone partial assimilation, as have French garage and hotel. Garage has developed a secondary, Anglicized pronunciation ('garrij') and can be used as a verb; hotel, originally pronounced with a silent 'h,' as the older formulation an hotel shows, has for some time been pronounced like an English word, with the 'h' being sounded. Finally, a Lehnwort ('loan word') has become a virtual native in the new language with no distinguishing characteristics. Loan word is thus an example of itself."
    (Geoffrey Hughes, A History of English Words. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2000)

    Luxury Loans From French

    • "[One] reason why words are taken over from another language is for prestige, because the foreign term for some reason is highly esteemed. Borrowings for prestige are sometimes called 'luxury' loans. For example, English could have done perfectly well with only native terms for 'pig flesh/pig meat' and 'cow flesh/cow meat,' but for reasons of prestige, pork (from French porc) and beef (from French bouef) were borrowed, as well as many other terms of 'cuisine' from French--cuisine itself is from French cuisine 'kitchen'--because French had more social status and was considered more prestigious than English during the period of Norman French dominance in England (1066-1300)."
      (Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd ed. MIT Press, 2004)

      Spanish Loanwords

      • "Among Spanish loanwords that are likely to be used by most speakers of contemporary English without particular consciousness of their Spanish origin, and certainly not with reference only to Spanish-speaking cultures, are: machete (1575), mosquito (1572), tobacco (1577), anchovy (1582), plantain 'type of banana' (1582; 1555 as platano), alligator (1591); earlier lagarto) . . ., (probably) cockroach (1624), guitar (a. 1637, perhaps via French), castanet (1647; perhaps via French), cargo (1657), plaza (1673), jerk 'to cure (meat)' (1707), flotilla (1711), demarcation (1728; perhaps via French), aficionado (1802), dengue (1828; the ulterior etymology is uncertain), canyon (1837), bonanza (1844), tuna (1881), oregano (1889)."
        (Philip Durkin, Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English. Oxford University Press, 2014)

      Recent Borrowings

      • "Today English borrows words from other languages with a truly global reach. Some examples that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests entered English during the past 30 years include tarka dal, a creamy Indian lentil dish (1984, from Hindi), quinzheea type of snow shelter (1984, from Slave or another language of the Pacific Coast of North America), popiah, a type of Singaporean or Malaysian spring roll (1986, from Malay), izakaya, a type of Japanese bar serving food (1987), affogato, an Italian dessert made of ice cream and coffee (1992). . . .
      • "Some words slowly build up in frequency. For instance, the word sushi [from Japanese] is first recorded in English in the 1890s, but the earliest examples in print all feel the need to explain what sushi is, and it is only in recent decades that it has become ubiquitous, as sushi has spread along the high street and into supermarket chiller cabinets in most corners of the English-speaking world. But, commonplace though sushi may be today, it hasn't made its way into the inner core of English in the same way as words like peace, war, just, or very (from French) or leg, sky, take, or they (from Scandinavian languages)." (Philip Durkin, "Does English Still Borrow Words From Other Languages?" BBC News, February 3, 2014)

      Code-Switching: Loanwords From Yiddish

      • "By using a particular language, bilingual speakers may be saying something about how they perceive themselves and how they wish to relate to their interlocutor. For instance, if a patient initiates an exchange with a doctor in the doctor's surgery in Yiddish, that may be a signal of solidarity, saying: you and I are members of the same sub-group. Alternatively, rather than choosing between languages, these two people may prefer code-switching. They may produce sentences which are partly in English and partly in Yiddish. If foreign words are used habitually in code-switching, they may pass from one language into another and eventually become fully integrated and cease being regarded as foreign. That is probably how words like chutzpah (brazen impudence), schlemiel (a very clumsy, bungling idiot who is always a victim), schmaltz (cloying, banal sentimentality) and goyim (gentile) passed from Yiddish into (American) English. The fact that there is no elegant English equivalent to these Yiddish words was no doubt also a factor in their adoption."
        (Francis Katamba, English Words: Structure, History, Usage, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)

        The Lighter Side of Loanwords

        • "A tongue-in-cheek alternative to ringxiety is fauxcellarm, an ingenious blend of the French loan word faux, meaning ‘false,’ cell, from cellphone, and alarm, which when spoken out loud sounds similar to ‘false alarm.’"
          (Kerry Maxwell, "Word of the Week." Macmillan English Dictionary, February 2007)