Introduction

many flags from around the world appear on a towering rectangular wall. A sculpture of a horseman on a stallion appears at the forefront on the right side

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:

  • Latin
  • French
  • 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

  1. it is spelled with
  • an accent mark (); or
  • uncommon English letter sequences (ka-, ko-, ku-, kh-, kl-),(-tz-),(-zz-),(-sch-),
    (-ieux-), etc.; or
  1. 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.

an image of several foods a la cart

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?

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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.

  1. When you are reading, what are the visual clues that might suggest a word is foreign?
  2. 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:

  1. What foreign words and phrases do I already know?
  2. How will I know when I come across a foreign word?
  3. Where can I look to find the definition of a foreign word or phrase?
  4. 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, ??

It's All Latin to Me

Latin is the base of the English language. Many of the words used in religion, grammar, and courts of law are in Latin. Read the information that follows to learn more about Latin’s influence on the English language:

  • Latin has been the most important source for English vocabulary.
  • As much as 17% of our active word stock is Latin.
  • The first words loaned from Latin to English occurred during contact between the Romans and the Germanic tribes and through the adoption of Christianity and the translation of religious and literary texts from Latin into Old English.
  • During the Renaissance, Latin was an active second language for many educated people.
  • Even in modern times, Latin has remained one of the most common sources of English borrowing.
  • English has traditionally borrowed Latin words and phrases from specific contexts such as law, religion, and science. As that exposure to Latin diminishes, so does the rate of borrowing.

Now that you know how Latin was introduced into the English language, it’s time for you to learn some words and phrases. Draw on any prior knowledge you may have from reading, movies, music, or just life in general, as you read each Latin word or phrase. Click the pronunciation links to hear each word and then try to say it. The picture is meant to be a visual representation of the word or phrase, but keep in mind that it’s just one possible representation. You are encouraged to find or draw your own picture to help you understand the meaning of each foreign word or phrase that you encounter in this lesson.


Two girls trade their lunch back and forth.

quid pro quo - noun

Language: Latin (“what for what”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /,kwid-,prō-'kwō/

How it’s used: Something given or received for something else; trading goods and services. This phrase is a legal term, often used to describe something traded for something else.

Example: We agreed to a quid pro quo: I take care of their dog next weekend if they mow my lawn before they leave.

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Old rusted sign from a car lot called OK Used Cars. The bottom of the sign has been edited to say ‘Let the Buyer Beware.’

caveat emptor - noun

Language: Latin (“let the buyer beware”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'kavē,ät,/'emp,tôr/

How it’s used: Once something has been purchased, the seller is no longer responsible for the item. It makes good business sense to do research, read the fine print, and make an informed decision. This phrase is often used in real estate and real estate law.

Example: When I tried to return an MP3 player that didn’t work, the salesperson cited caveat emptor as a reason to examine products before purchasing them.

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A photographer standing on dangerous rocks gets ready to take a photo of the sea.

carpe diem - noun

Language: Latin (“seize the day”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /,kärp 'dē,em/

How it’s used: This phrase is often used to mean “live in the moment” or “seize the day.”

Example: After years of being afraid to bungee jump, Susan yelled “carpe diem!” and leapt toward the gorge.

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Young woman graduating from college. Behind her, a plaque reads: ‘Alma Mater: To Thy Happy Children of the Future, Those of the Past Send Greetings.’

alma mater - noun

Language: Latin (“nourishing mother,” originally referred to one of several mother goddesses)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'älmə 'mätər/

How it’s used: Alma mater is used to refer any school, college, or university that someone has graduated from. Sometimes it refers to a school song.

Example: Laura Bush, Roger Clemens, and Matthew McConaughey all call The University of Texas at Austin their alma mater.

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At a political rally, an older woman dressed in fancy dress clothes carries a sign that says “Don’t pull the plug on the status quo! Billionaires for Wealth Care dot com.

status quo - noun

Language: Latin (“the state in which,” originally from a longer diplomatic phrase, “the state in which things were before the war”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'stātəs 'kwō, 'statəs 'kwō/

How it’s used: It means “the way things have always been.” To maintain the status quo is to keep things as they are, to avoid change.

Example: It’s easier to maintain the status quo than to work to make a difference.

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A man opens his suit and shirt to show a superman costume underneath. The caption of the image says ‘Little did they know...’

alter ego - noun

Language: Latin (“the other self”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /,ôl-tər- 'ē-(,)gō/

How it’s used: Alter ego suggests a second self, an alternate identity, or the opposite side of someone’s personality.

Example: Bruce Banner becomes the Incredible Hulk when he loses his temper, much in the same way that Dr. Jekyll assumes the alter ego of Mr. Hyde.

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Four different artist’s versions of the famous picture, ‘Mona Lisa.’ The original one has the caption ‘Bona Fide.’

bona fide - noun

Language: Latin (from “bona fides” or “good faith”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'bō-nə-, fīd/

How it’s used: It indicates sincerity, honest intention, or something that actually is true to its representation.

Example: A jeweler certified that the pearl necklace was bona fide before Jill sold it to Kenny.

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Infographic showing the amount of chocolate consumed per captitain in Switzerland

per capita - noun

Language: Latin (“by head”)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /pər- 'ka-pə-tə/

How it’s used: This term is generally found in statistics in lieu of “per person.” Per capita suggests that something is equally applied to each individual.

Example: Each person in Switzerland consumes 22.7 lbs. of chocolate per year, giving Switzerland the highest per capita rate of chocolate consumption worldwide.

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For the activity that follows, see if you can choose the correct Latin word or phrase for each blank. Take your time and refer back to the charts as many times as necessary.

How did you do? Did you give yourself “carte blanche” to have fun? You’ll learn about “carte blanche” in the next section, but remember that when you come across a word you don’t know, look it up in a dictionary. The more you read, the greater your fluency will be.


Images used in this section

Source: Girls swapping lunch, iStockPhoto Source: "OK Used Cars,” original image by rjs 1322, Flickr Source: “Carpe Diem,” Arnaldo Gutiérrez, Flickr Source: “Alma Mater” from images by Char Newcomb and OZinOH, Flickr Source: “Don’t pull the plug on the Status Quo!” Steve Rhondes, Flickr Source: Superhero, Mark H. Anbinder, Flickr Source: Cartoon Mona Lisa by Mike R. Baker, Graffiti Mona Lisa by nozoomii, emoticon Mona Lisa by Byron Manley, Flickr.

French for You

Read the information that follows to learn more about the French influence on the English language:

  • Today’s vocabulary is about 45% French origin.
  • More than 10,000 French words were borrowed during the Middle English period.
  • French was the principal language of culture and civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe.
  • French words and phrases are often perceived as elegant and educated.

    Now that you know how French has influenced English, study each word that follows and try to pronounce it. It may take you a couple of tries to sound out the words or phrases, but the links to the pronunciations will help you.


    Woman holding a giant blank check.

    carte blanche - noun

    Language: French (“white, or blank, paper,” the French sign for military surrender)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'kärt- 'blänsh,- 'blänch/

    How it’s used: Giving someone carte blanche suggests that they have full authority to make decisions. Giving someone a signed blank check with the amount left blank implies the same thing; you completely trust that person to make decisions.

    Example: Jackie’s parents gave her carte blanche to buy anything she wanted.

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    An antique postcard from France showing a man and a woman having a romantic conversation over coffee.

    tête–à–tête - noun

    Language: French (“head to head”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'teitə 'teit/ /tĕtatĕt/

    How it’s used: Broadly, a tête–à–tête describes a private conversation between two people. The word suggests that the conversation might be secret, intimate, or even romantic.

    Example: The quiet café’s private little room was a perfect place for a tête–à–tête.

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    A male and female dancer of the Cuban national ballet company.

    pas de deux - noun

    Language: French (“step for two”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /-'də(r),- 'dü/

    How it’s used: The term describes a moment in a ballet, movie, or show when a couple performs an intricate dance. In the same way that a guitar solo shows off the guitarist’s skill, a pas de deux can literally put two dancers in the spotlight. As a metaphor, pas de deux might describe any complicated interactions between two people or groups, like the give-and-take between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

    Example: In the ballet’s ballroom scene of Romeo and Juliet, the two main characters performed a pas de deux in which time ceased..

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    bon appetit magazine with a gourmet hamburger on the cover

    bon appetit - noun

    Language: French (“good appetite”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /bó-nä-pā-tē/

    How it’s used: A cheerful phrase that’s said to someone who is about to enjoy a good meal or—if you want to be ironic—about to eat a very bad meal!

    Example: After grilling a thick and hearty burger, Joe served it to Henry and said “bon appétit!”.

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    A brightly-colored picture of the exact same man six times, each time wearing a different color of T-shirt.

    déjà vu - noun

    Language: French (“already seen”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /,dā- zhä- 'vü, -'vue/

    How it’s used: A strange, eerie feeling of having already seen, heard, or done something, even when you know you haven’t.

    Example: Although I’d never been to Balmorhea, Texas, I couldn’t shake the feeling of déjà vu.

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    For the activity that follows, see if you can choose the correct French word or phrase for each blank. Take your time and refer back to the definitions above as many times as necessary.


    Images used in this section

    Source: Giant check, iStockPhoto Source: World War I Postcard from France, abac077, Flickr Source: Ballet Nacional de Cuba pas de deux, Chrys Omori, Wikipedia Source: “Bon Appetit Magazine, Knapp Communications” Source: “Rainbow Ts,” Cayusa, Flickr

    The Wide World of Words

    After Latin and French, the English language was enriched by German, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Sanskrit, and Yiddish among many others. The following words represent a small sampling of the words that have been embraced by English. Again, try to sound out each word and use the accompanying audio link to help you.


    A squirrel photographed in the middle of a sneeze.

    gesundheit - interjection

    Language: German (“good health”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /gə- 'zúnt- ,hīt/

    How it’s used: This term is like saying “bless you.” Gesundheit is a wish of good health for someone who has just sneezed.

    Example: Everett says gesundheit after anyone sneezes–even in a movie theater.

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    cartoon man holding a balloon of himself over a town.

    hubris - noun

    Language: Greek

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'hyü-brəs/

    How it’s used: In ancient Greece, hubris was considered a crime. Anyone who outrageously abused wealth or power might be accused of hubris. Now it’s used to describe arrogance, exaggerated pride, and too much self-confidence, especially when prideful behavior leads to a downfall.

    Example: The businessman’s failure was brought on by his hubris. He considered himself far too important to be arrested.

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    A husband and wife glare at each other angrily over a board game.

    mano a mano - adjective

    Language: Spanish (“hand to hand”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /,mä-nō-ä-mä-nō/

    How it’s used: This term describes direct, face-to-face competition or conflict. It acts like the phrases “one-on-one” and “man-to-man.”

    Example: A boxing match is the ultimate mano a mano competition with nothing between the two fighters but their boxing gloves.

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    A boy eats French fries outside, against a cloudy sky.

    alfresco - adjective

    Language: Italian (outside, “in a fresh temperature”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /al- 'fres-(,)kō/

    How it’s used: This term describes something that takes place outside in the open air, most often eating outside, as in a picnic or on a restaurant’s patio.

    Example: Dining alfresco in the Texas summer can be a bad idea because sometimes the heat melts the dishes.

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    A man practices Karate in this old photograph.

    karate - adjective

    Language: Japanese (“empty hand”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /kə- 'rä-tē/

    How it’s used: A Japanese art of self-defense employing hand strikes and kicks to disable or subdue an opponent.

    Example: Dean wanted to learn karate not only for self-defense, but also to get in shape.

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    The symbol for Recycling with the word “Karma”

    karma - adjective

    Language: Sanskrit (“actions” or “deeds”)

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary pronunciation: /'kär-mə also 'kər-/

    How it’s used: A hard-to-translate word borrowed from Buddhism, karma implies “what goes around comes around,” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It assumes that good and bad actions have consequences, but we may not always experience them immediately, or even in this lifetime. You might have heard of “good karma” and “bad karma”—good deeds or bad deeds that pile up a kind of energy that can come back to a person later.

    Example: Angel believes that helping other people in need will produce good karma.

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    Your Turn

    For the culminating activity, choose two words from this section and explore them more deeply. You will use a graphic organizer to record your answers, but first look at the following example and the word memoir.

    A chart showing examples of a memoir.

    Memoir, a French word, is defined as “a writer’s account or memories of true events in his or her life.” Remember that a memoir

    • does not always convey a person’s entire life. It might focus on a few significant years;
    • will always be true or nonfiction. You can’t make up things that didn’t happen in order to make the story more interesting; and
    • is a form of autobiography because it’s an account of an important time in your life.

    Examples of memoirs include the following:

    • A short story about the day I broke my arm
    • A diary kept by a child living in a war zone

    If a memoir includes true accounts from someone’s life and those accounts include a life-changing event, non-examples would be stories that aren’t true or aren’t types of autobiographies. For example, science fiction, historical novels, essays, and dramas are not memoirs. The non-examples are close to the definition and characteristics, but they won’t exactly match. Some non-examples of a memoir might include the following:

    • A short story about turning into a superhero
    • A fictional diary of a teenager who is having trouble at school

    Graphic Organizer icon

    Now click the link to download and open the graphic organizer. Type your answers on-screen or print this file and write them. When you are finished, return to this lesson. If you get stuck, go to the Merriam-Webster website below and find synonyms and antonyms to help you. Graphic organizer instructions

    Merriam-Webster Online

    You have now completed the lesson on origins and meanings of foreign words and phrases. Remember that when you come across a foreign word or phrase—which is likely since a majority of the words in the English language come from Latin or French—take time to look up the origin and meaning. It may take you a while to get used to looking up words and may seem distracting to your reading, but with practice and experience, your knowledge and fluency will improve.

    Are you interested in learning about the Spanish influence on the English language? Check out this link to several alphabetized word lists.


    Images used in this section

    Source: “Squirrel Sneeze,” Glen Axelon, Flickr Source: Source: “Game night!” John Carleton, Flickr Source: “McDonalds Breakfast Alfresco,” Todd Sanders, Flickr Source: Hanashiro Chomo, Nakasone Genwa, Wikimedia Commons Source: “Karma” graphic, Eponabri, Flickr

    Test Your Understanding

    Resources