Living on Borrowed Words


English is very comfortable with absorbing words from other languages, and you can find words from many, many languages in English dictionaries. Unlike, say, Welsh, Icelandic, or French, there is no official body whose job it is to invent new native words for concepts that did not previously exist or were not previously needed. As a result, words from non-English languages often find their way into English usage.

We refer to such words as loan words or borrowed words, despite the fact these words do not disappear from their original language and can never be returned. In fact, the word loan word is a direct translation of the German word lehnwort. Direct translations like this are referred to as calques rather than loan words, and they can be found in numerous languages (many European languages have in them a calque of the English word skyscraper, such as the French gratte-ciel). Amusingly, therefore, in English, calque is a loan word, and loan word is a calque!

If you are studying English in London or plan to study English in London, you will notice more words of French origin than in regular American use, but even if you study English online, this is an area of English that is both useful and fascinating. You will also encounter loan words at all levels – even the English third person plural pronoun they is classed as a loan word!

As a student learning English online or learning English in London, you should be particularly careful of English words that come from your mother tongue, because the pronunciation and grammar may have changed to fit the sounds and structures of English. For example, the French word genre is pronounced as having a single syllable, while in English it is pronounced as two syllables. The Italian word panini is plural, but in English it is used as a singular noun.

It is also worth mentioning that a number of loan words used in English are no longer widely used in the languages they come from. The English word tycoon comes from 19th century Japanese, but modern Japanese does not really use it.

Finally, below are some loan words used in English. Can you guess which languages they come from? Use your favourite search engine to check your answers, as well as the definitions of words you don’t know!

  • Yoghurt
  • Crepe
  • Rucksack 
  • Ketchup 
  • Algebra
  • Armadillo
  • Banana
  • Tsunami
  • Tungsten 
  • Pyjamas
Scroll to Top