Alphabet Soup

Eight not-so-obvious English words that aren’t actually English and how they came to be.

The United States is a melting pot; we all know that. The English language: likewise. Some words have obviously been borrowed from foreign lands: taco, soufflé, poltergeist. With others, like dollar, robot, and ketchup, it’s not so obvious. Some words that we use every day are borrowed from languages you wouldn’t expect and meant something completely different than what they do today.

“It’s like how we take an original house and build on and remodel so much that it’s hardly recognizable from its original structure,” says Erin McKean, editor-in-chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press and the editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition. “Some people think etymology is destiny, but I don’t feel that way.”

Here’s a few of the odd and the interesting:

Dollar- German, “minted from silver”
English definition: “Basic unit of money in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other countries that is equal to 100 cents”
The English colonists referenced Spanish pieces of eight with the word until the Continental Congress adopted the term ‘dollar’ when it set up U.S. currency. Founding fathers Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson liked the word because it was widely known but not tied to Great Britain.

Tomato- Spanish, “the swelling fruit”
English definition: “Round, soft, red fruit that is eaten raw or cooked and that is often used in salads, sandwiches, sauces, etc.”
Only grown as ornamental plants in England, the tomato was usually described as “a fruit eaten either stewed or raw by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew Families of England.” They were introduced to the U.S. as part of a program by Thomas Jefferson, but were not common use in food for another 50 years.

“The interesting thing about borrowing from other languages is that, in the same way as borrowing from other cultures links to the deliciousness of the United States, borrowing from other languages adds to the deliciousness of the English language,” says McKean.

Zombie- West African voodoo, “reanimated corpse”
English definition: “A person who moves very slowly and is not aware of what is happening especially because of being very tired”
The word crossed from Africa into Louisiana creole to a word meaning “phantom ghost.” The definition was changed in 1936 to the slang for a “slow-witted person.” The modern, overly aggressive, biologically infected zombie of today’s pop culture craze led by movies like “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” has yet to reach dictionaries. The leap from the slower and dumber zombies to today’s definition is still a mystery, but most etymological dictionaries speculate that it has something to do with the prominent talk of biological warfare and mutating viruses.

Magazine- Middle French, “place for storing goods, especially military ammunition; a warehouse”
English definition: “Type of thin book with a paper cover that contains stories, essays, pictures, etc. and that is usually published every week or month”
The original sense of the word is almost lost now. The first publication to use the word’s current meaning was the “Gentleman’s Magazine” in 1731. It was a printed list of military stores and information. It’s possible that the meaning could have changed from being a literal warehouse or storehouse of goods to being a figurative storehouse of information.

“The basic rationale behind any kind of borrowing is that words are tools and just as you might go across the street and borrow something from your neighbor, you also go outside English to borrow a word for something you might not have a word for,” says McKean.

Robot- Czech, “slave” or “forced labor, compulsory service, drudgery”
English definition: “A real or imaginary machine that is controlled by a computer and is often made to look like a human or animal”
The English translation came from the 1920 play by Karel Capek, “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”). Though the modern translation was popularized by Capek, his brother, Josef, actually coined the term in a less popular short story. Robots are becoming more and more human in both design and in their nature, often portrayed in movies as a threat to humanity.

Schmuck- East Yiddish, “penis”
English definition: “A stupid or foolish person”
The word was “so vulgar it was taboo” in Jeweish homes. It was later euphemized as schmoe and popularized by Al Capp’s creature “the schmoo” in his cartoon strip. American Jews, for the most part, don’t know any more about the original meaning of “schmuck” than the average English speaker. If anything, they’re more likely to be offended by a non-Jew using a clearly Jewish word than by the actual meaning behind it.

“All English speakers are so close to English that it’s hard to see it for what it is,” says McKean. “It’s like [the phrase] ‘fish don’t know that there’s water because they don’t know anything aside from water.’”

Slogan- Gaelic, “battle cry”
English definition: “Word or phrase that is easy to remember and is used by a group or business to attract attention”
The Gaelic use of “slogan” is recorded as early as the 1500s, but the word was used in 1704 in a more metaphoric sense as “a distinctive word or phrase used by a political or other group.” Likely it was because politicians were using slogans, or battle cries, as easy ways for people to remember them and it was later picked up by other organizations.

Ketchup- Malay/Chinese, “brine of fish”
English definition: “A thick sauce made with tomatoes”
Originally only a word for fish sauce, the English language picked it up to represent a variety of different sauces including walnut, mushroom, oyster, cockle and mussel, tomato, white, cucumber, and pudding. Three were the most esteemed of the sauces, mushroom, walnut, and tomato, and ketchup was eventually adapted to only mean the tomato version of the sauces. Next time you’re loading your hotdog with ketchup, remember all the other sauces it could have been and be thankful we chose to stick with tomato.