Monthly Archives: January 2015

Arabian Nights and Fizzy Drinks

This is the last in our series of blogs on the influence of foreign words on the English language. As a company that specialises in translation and interpretation, language is a subject that occupies us every day. As I noted in an earlier post, languages are constantly changing and ‘interbreeding’, and as such are as good a refutation as any of the odious views of racists who believe that their country (wherever it is) should be kept free and pure of outside influences. Most languages today have a smattering, or more, of words from other countries and continents and English is, like the others a mongrel concoction of words from across Europe and indeed across the world. And just to illustrate the point, do you know how many English words are derived from Arabian languages?

For a start, anyone who has sat and scratched their head while trying to do ‘algebra’ at school probably hasn’t stopped to think of the etymology of that word, but it most assuredly is Arabian. Continuing on this mathematical theme, the word ‘zero’ is also Arabian in origin, which probably explains why I used to get zero for algebra!

‘Assassin’, on the other hand, is more likely to be recognised my many people as having a Middle Eastern origin, as do ‘sultan’, ‘sherbet’ and ‘harem’, but did you know that ‘sofa’, ‘mattress’ and ‘tariff’ are also Arabian words?

Finally, just to prove the point that languages are interbred, the word ‘sherbet’, which is derived from the Arabic word ‘sharbat’ (or from the Turkish ‘serbet’), is also the source of the French word ‘sorbet’ (which, just to confuse you more we also use in English) and the Italian ‘sorbetto.   The English word ‘syrup’ is also derived from this source.   Pronunciation and spellings all vary from country to country, with a common pronunciation in English being ‘sherbert’, rather than ‘sherbet’, although the latter is the correct spelling in English.

All languages adapt and adopt. It’s what makes our lives as translators interesting. Language is never boring!

David Orr, Director, Global Connects


Beware of the Hoodies!

It’s well known that Spanish, as befits its status as a major world language, has many words which are commonly used in English.  Siesta, vanilla, guerilla, cigar and many others are well known.  However, Spain’s neighbour, Portugal, is the source of many more well-known words in English, including that most ubiquitous of all ‘British’ vegetables, the potato!

Other Portuguese words that have passed into common usage in English include ‘breeze’, ‘cashew’, ‘mosquito’ and ‘teak’.  I didn’t know any of these were Portuguese!   Further investigation suggests that other countries/languages also lay claim to ‘breeze’, including the Dutch, the French and the Italians.

Other Portuguese words that are used in English include ‘commando’, ‘tank’ and ‘coconut’.   Tank is derived from ‘tangue’, meaning ‘pond’, while ‘commando’ comes from the Portuguese ‘comando’, meaning ‘command’.  From this word, the Dutch word ‘Kommando’ was taken into Afrikaans and then used in the Boer War, meaning a ‘mobile infantry regiment’.  So again, we see how languages are all interlinked.

Coconut is a simple word to understand. It is derived from the Portuguese ‘coco, meaning ‘skull’.  Anyone looking at the three indentation on a coconut shell will see where this comes from!

The final Portuguese word I want to look at is ‘cobra’.  As is often the case, I, and I suspect others, assume this word is non-European in origin, given that most cobras are from tropical Asia or Africa. However, its origin is from the Portuguese ‘cobra de capello’, which means ‘snake with a hood’.   The ‘de capello’ has been lost in the mists of time, and these snakes are now all referred to as ‘cobras’.  Perhaps this is why some people think that youngsters who have wear a ‘hoodie’ look a bit threatening!

David Orr, Director, Global Connects 

Donner und Blitzen

This week, as part of our continuing series on English words that are derived from overseas, this week I’m looking at the influence of Germany on our language.

German words in English tend to be, well, somewhat obviously Germanic. Or at least I think they are. Apart from the names of (some of) Santa’s reindeer, as demonstrated in the title above, German words in English look German. However, it can be confusing. ‘Lager’, the origin of which I suspect most lager louts are not aware, and for the more upmarket lager lout, ‘pilsner’, are obviously German, although the German for beer is, of course, not ‘lager’ but rather ‘bier’! Confused? You can be, especially when you consider the other meaning of ‘bier’ in English, namely a stand for a coffin/corpse. That ‘bier’ is an ancient word, probably from Middle English or Old English (before the year 900) and also similar to other German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish words. So, after a dozen pints you might be ready not for another bier but for a bier.

To return to German words in English, as noted, many of them are obviously German. Kindergarten, kitsch, kaput and zeitgeist are examples of these, and blitz and wanderlust are others that fall into the ‘obvious’ category. Of these, kindergarten is the one that most people struggle to spell, with a very English tendency to write ‘kindergarden’ rather than ‘kindergarten’. Indeed, I even know of an advertising agency that used to give interviewees a spelling test that included kindergarten and it was the one word most people got wrong.

Frankfurter is quintessentially German, but, continuing the gastronomic theme, I suspect that many people think, like I did, that ‘Hamburger’ was an American word, not, as I now know, another German one. Hamburgers, of course, don’t necessarily contain ham, but can be made up of any meat (although horse is frowned upon in the UK ). I am pretty sure that I’ve even see Blitzenburgers at a farmers’ market recently!

David Orr, Director, Global Connects

What have the Romans done for us?


If you were with us last week, you’ll know I’ve started a series of blogs looking at the influence of other languages on English. Given the dominance of English as a world-language, especially in business, we, on this island, tend to be arrogant in thinking that we just need to shout loudly when on holiday and everyone will understand. If we only knew that many of the ‘English’ words we use every day actually come from ‘abroad’.   It’s a bit like the famous Monty Python sketch ‘what have the Romans done for us?’…and that’s without even considering the enormous influence of Latin on English!

For example, ‘what have the Indians ever done for us’ (apart, obviously) from giving us our national dish (curry), would, in terms of language, be an easy question to answer, viz,

Do you live in a ‘bungalow’

Do you like listening to ‘pundits’ on Match of the Day?

Did you see the ‘cheetahs’ at the zoo?

Isn’t ‘khaki’ fashionable?

Make sure you avoid the ‘thugs’ at the football match!

The robbers got away with the ‘loot’!

Do you think the ‘jungle’ in ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’ is real?

Do you wear ‘pyjamas’ in bed?

These, and many others (such as dacoit and guru) are all words that come from the sub-continent. The word pyjama has its origins in the early 19th century, and is believed to derive from Urdu and Persian, being a combination of the word ‘pāy’, meaning ‘leg’ and ‘jāma’ meaning ‘clothing.

Next week, we’ll look at some of the English words that come from Germany.

David Orr, Director, Global Connects


I am the Walrus


T.S. Elliot, in his ‘Four Quartets’, (and be honest, you weren’t expecting this?) wrote, “for last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”


When you are in the business of language translation and interpretation, you are constantly made aware that no language is a sedentary beast. Languages, as we know, change, adopt and adapt. Other ‘voices’ make their case to be heard and we can all cite examples of the ways in which words change their meaning, or are given new ones. There is a slightly conservative, almost reactionary element for whom any change is anathema, but the old hands realise that languages are living entities and, while we might not like some of their progeny, we have to live with them. Often, these changes are simply those that affect the meanings of words within a language (the changing use of ‘gay’ being a classic case in point), but often it is the introduction of new words, either invented (as in Shakespeare’s plays) or from other languages, that have had the biggest influence over the centuries.

We like to think that globalisation is a recent phenomenon, but in fact people have been traversing the globe for centuries, albeit in smaller numbers than they do today. Imperial expansion, as practised by the Spanish and British, has resulted in English and Spanish being amongst the most important languages in the world.

Modern-day globalisation, naturally, increases the influence of the major world languages, with English being the example par excellence of this, as demonstrated by the number of English expressions and words that are used verbatim in other languages. Moreover, the fact that we use a French expression (par excellence) here just goes to show that even English is not immune (as if it ever was!) from reciprocal foreign influences. Languages interbreed, as we’re going to show over the next few weeks with a series of blogs that look at the words that English had adopted from other countries.

By way of introduction, did you know that about 1% of English words have their origin in the Dutch language?   For example, all the following are derived from Dutch: booze, coleslaw, cookie, dam, dock, easel, frolic, gas, landscape, luck, skates, snoop, splinter, spook, stove, waffle and, of course, walrus.

The Dutch word walrus is thought to be derived from the old Norse word hrosshvair (meaning ‘horse whale’) and then further influenced by another Dutch word, ‘walvis’, meaning ‘whale fish’. An alternative explanation is that walrus comes from the Dutch words ‘wal’, meaning ‘shore’ and ‘reus’, meaning ‘giant’. Whether John Lennon knew all this when he composed the Beatles ‘I am the Walrus’ is open to debate!

David Orr, Director, Global Connects