The origin of English words

Have you ever wondered why there are so many French words for streets in English? Just think about it. There are boulevards, avenues, promenades and even cul-de-sacs. But why? In this week's post, we're going to have a look where English words come from.

There’s a famous old story about the Tower of Babel and the origins of language.  The story goes that once, everyone on earth spoke the same language.  As people journeyed from the east they found a plain in Sumeria and decided to build a city there.  They used the best quality bricks and mortar to build a city so strong and safe that it would prevent them from being scattered all over the earth.  God was not pleased with their motives.  He had previously commanded that people and animals multiply and fill the earth, so God confused their language so much that they could not understand one another's speech.  And so we have the origins of language.

Note that the bible doesn’t say that God created a whole raft of new languages at Babel, but that He confused the one language that everyone originally spoke.  In theory, the grammar of that original language would still be there, and therefore there would be similarities in many words and expressions.

I’m not saying that this is the reason for the explanation of the origin of language, but it is an interesting story.  In English we can trace many words back to their language of origin.  These words are known as ‘borrowings’ or ‘loan-words’ (although this is slightly misleading as the English language does not give them back!).  One reason for this could well be geographical proximity or historical conquest (particularly in the case of French!).  You can find a great list of loan words here.

Look at the following words for different types of people and their language of origin:

Aunt (French)

Bandit (Italian)

Cannibal (Spanish)

Czar (Russian)

Guru (Hindi)

Robot (Czech)

Sultan (Arabic)

Tycoon (Japanese)

These words have been in the English language for many years, and often the corresponding word in the language of origin has a different meaning to the English meaning, or in some cases, does not even exist anymore.

I think that understanding loan words can help us to understand English and our own language a little better.  What do you think?  Do you have these words in your language?  Do the meanings differ from the definitions below?  Do you know any English loan words which have come from your own language?  Are there any words in your language which have been loaned from English?

By Andy


boulevard - (n.) a wide road in a city, usually with trees or flowers at the sides

avenue - (n.) a wide street in a city

promenade - (n.) a path in a public place, often by the sea, used for pleasure

cul-de-sac - (n.) a street which is closed at one end (also known as a dead-end street)

plain - (n.) a large area of mostly flat land

motive - (n.) reason for a person's actions

scatter - (v.) to separate and go in various directions

a whole raft of - (fixed expression) many/a lot of

misleading - (adj.) deceptive, not entirely true

geographical proximity - (adj.+n) the physical location of two places e.g. Britain is close to France

historical conquest - (adj.+n.) conflict and war in the past

bandit - (n.) a robber, especially one who is part of a gang

cannibal - (n.) a person who eats human flesh

czar - (n.) any person who has great authority or power in a particular field

guru - (n.) an expert in a particular field

sultan - (n.) a ruler, particular an Islamic leader

tycoon - (n.) a businessperson of great wealth and power

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