English: [A language that] has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary –James Nicoll
Words, words, everywhere, and most of them are foreign. Wait . . . what was that? That’s right; most of the words we use in English came from other languages. Look at the humorous quotation in the box above that shows how English borrows words from other languages, and we’re not finished yet because the English language is diverse and ever changing. New words are introduced through technology, slang, politics, and culture. Every year, in fact, we use new words and slowly leave older words behind. It’s the blending of the old and new that’s fascinating about the English language.
In this lesson, you will learn the meanings and origins of 20 foreign words and phrases. It may seem like an overwhelming number of words, but some may already be familiar; you just didn't realize their origins. Other words may be new to you, and that's OK. You can impress your friends and family by using them.
The words and phrases in this lesson are grouped by their origins:
- German, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Sanskrit, and Yiddish
Think about what you already know about foreign words and phrases. You probably know some words like prima donna, nemesis, or karate. These words originated in another country but were embedded into English. When you come across a foreign word while doing reading for your classes, there are usually clues such as accent marks, italics, or even asterisks to tell you to look at the bottom of the page for a definition. Most writers will also provide hints about the meaning of foreign terms through context clues. If you’re still stumped about the meaning of a word after studying the context surrounding it, you can look in a dictionary to learn more.
Recognizing Foreign Words and Phrases
This information will help you to identify foreign words. A word or phrase may be from another language if
- it is spelled with
- an accent mark (dé); or
- uncommon English letter sequences (ka-, ko-, ku-, kh-, kl-),(-tz-),(-zz-),(-sch-),
(-ieux-), etc.; or
- the letters or sound sequences of words are pronounced differently, as in
- the French expression déjá vu, literally “already seen”; or
- the Spanish mañana “tomorrow”; or
- the Russian kolkhoz “cooperative farm.”
Follow this link to learn more about clues to foreign words and phrases.
In this lesson, each foreign word will be introduced with text, an image, and an audio pronunciation example so that you can understand the many aspects of the word. The audio pronunciations use Merriam-Webster’s phonetic pronunciation guide. Try saying the word two to three times using the audio to guide you. Sound out each word or phrase. It’s OK if you can’t pronounce a word right the first time; after all, the word is from a different language. You should also compare the pronunciation from the audio to the word’s printed pronunciation key to learn exactly how to say a word and to make connections between unfamiliar word constructions and sounds. Each word’s printed key breaks it into syllables and shows you where to place emphasis when you speak.
For each word or phrase in this lesson, you will see
- a note showing the word's language origin;
- the literal meaning of the word in its original language;
- what the word has come to mean, since the literal meaning may only provide a clue to the meaning in English;
- a brief discussion of how the word is used; and
- an example sentence that demonstrates the word's usage in context.
Take a moment to read and study the example word, á la carte, below.
á la carte - noun
Language: French (“according to the menu”)
Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: \,ä-lə-'kärt, ,a-lə-\
How it’s used: Describes food ordered one item at a time; for example, the “biggie breakfast special” might come with two eggs, bacon, hash browns, and orange juice for $6. If you weren’t very hungry, you might order just the eggs á la carte for $3.
Example: I don’t want the combo dinner, but how much is a taco á la carte?
Let’s test what you have read so far. Using your notes, write your responses to the two questions below. When you are finished, check your understanding to see a sample response.
- When you are reading, what are the visual clues that might suggest a word is foreign?
- What is another way to tell if a word originates from another language?
Knowing how to identify, pronounce, and define foreign words and phrases will help you in many classes, including history, economics, and English. Many French words, for example, are used when you study writing and film. It’s important not to skip over foreign words while reading. Take the time to find out their origins and meanings.
Before you move on to the next section, consider the following:
- What foreign words and phrases do I already know?
- How will I know when I come across a foreign word?
- Where can I look to find the definition of a foreign word or phrase?
- How can I use this information in my other classes or in real life?
Images used in this section
Source: “La torre delle bandiere e il Dioscuro” (Turin Olympic flags), Davide Galimberti, Flickr Source: a la carte, ??