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6 English Words You Never Realised Were Taken from Other Languages

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From the 17th Century until the late 19th Century, England seemed to be obsessed with taking over as much of the world as it possibly could.

In fact, at one point it was said that “the sun never set on the British Empire” – meaning that so much of the planet was controlled by this tiny island that it was always daytime somewhere in a British territory or colony.

As you might expect, Britain took a lot of things from the countries it invaded over the centuries, but you might not realise that one of those things was language.

While the Brits were busy trying to get their new subjects all over the world to speak English, they picked up a lot of new words from these countries and cultures, too. Many of these words have become so common in ordinary speech today that many people – even native English speakers – don’t realise how recently they entered the English vocabulary.

Let’s take a look at some of these commonly used words, and where they came from.

1. Trek

In today’s English, a trek usually means a long, difficult walk. However, the word actually comes from South Africa. In the early 1800s, Dutch settlers called Boers would pile everything up into ox-drawn carts and “trek” across the country. When British people came into contact with them, they borrowed the word but used it to mean any kind of long journey.

2. Pajamas



Like many words that entered the English language during the time of the British Empire, the term “pajamas” comes from India. Indian Muslims wore baggy trousers called pai jaimas, and the British colonists borrowed the word to describe the loose-fitting clothing they wore to bed.

3. Jungle

This is another word that originally came from India. In Hindi, the word “jangal” really just meant a piece of land or messy bunch of trees that humans hadn’t tried to make neat or useful. The Brits, though, didn’t have a better word to use for the thick forests of strange trees they saw in India, so they tried to copy the word – and turned it into “jungle”.

4. Thug

Yes, it’s another one from India! In the Marathi language, a “thag” is a thief or criminal. When Brits adopted the word they changed the pronunciation to “thug”, and now it means any kind of violent, aggressive person.

5. Ketchup

Today we usually think of ketchup as the sugary tomato sauce you eat with your McDonalds fries, but back in the 17th Century it was an Amoy Chinese name for a mix of pickled fish and spices (pronounced kôe-chiap or kê-chiap). The sauce gradually spread to other countries in the region, including Malaysia – which later became a British colony. By the time the word had travelled to the United States (another British colony at that time), the ingredients had changed completely, but the word stayed the same!

6. Typhoon

It’s fair to say that in the UK, we don’t experience a lot of typhoons! This meant that when British people travelled to Southeast Asia and saw such extreme weather for the first time, they didn’t have a name for it. Luckily the Taiwanese people, who were more used to this, did have a word for it: typhoon. The English speakers adopted this word and took it back home with them.

If this post interested you and you want to deepen your understanding of the English language, take a look at our range of courses at www.Eurocentres.com