It’s a fact that English is the language that most influences Spanish today. But back in history, the Spanish Empire was so powerful and broad that it gave us many terms that were borrowed by English and other languages.

A while ago I read the book Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries: English Words that Come from Spanish that turned out to be very interesting. As a native Spanish speaker, there were some words -like mosquito, chocolate and cafeteria- that did not surprise me.But it was nice to keep on reading the stories on how they entered the English language.

I was, however, impressed by some English words that I didn’t know come from my native language.

Here are examples and short summaries of 10 of these words whose Spanish origin is not initially noticeable:

1. barbecue | barbacoa English Words from Spanish BARBECUE

From the word barbacoa that actually was a word from the Taínos, the indigenous inhabitants that lived in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas when the Spaniards arrived to America. Why was I so surprised?I grew up in Puerto Rico and, despite it being one of the places where Taínos used to live, we constantly prefer to use the English word barbecue (or BBQ) instead of barbacoa. For example, you will hear conversations like Me invitaron a un barbecue el sábado (I was invited to a barbecue on Saturday).

2. blue blood | sangre azul

This is a direct translation of the Spanish phrase sangre azul. The skin color and religion played a role in the story of this term. The first part brings up the fact that the veins look like blue lines in fair skin. The second part of the story tells us that after the fall of the Muslim kingdom in Spain, many Muslims and Jews were forced to become Christians. The new converts were viewed with contempt and since many of them had a darker skin color, their blue veins were not visible like the ones of the Christian aristocrats that then ruled Spain.

English Words from Spanish BREEZE3. breeze | brisa

This word entered the English language in the late 1500s. It comes from the word briza (now spelled brisa) that back then meant “northeast wind.” This was one of the many maritime terms that came from the Spanish language during the time Spain was the leader in routes to the New World.

4. compliment | cumplimiento

The words complement and compliment have the same Latin root complēmentum with the meaning of “something that completes.” This Latin word is also the origin of the Spanish cumplimiento with the same meaning. This word was also used in the 1500s to make reference to a short phrase used in ceremonies to express admiration and courtesy, “something short that completes the protocol.” The book further explains that the word was also used in Italian (complimento) and French (compliment) which later on influenced its English spelling.

5. cockroach | cucarachaEnglish Words from Spanish COCKROACH

Captain John Smith used this word for the very first time in 1624 spelled cacarootch.  The word “cock” transformed the word to cockroach in English by a linguistics phenomenon called folk etymology or the “change in a word or phrase over time resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familiar one.”

6. booby trap | bobo

This term sounds pretty English to me. The story focuses on the word booby with two meanings: “a stupid person” and the sea bird. Apparently the word booby comes from the Spanish bobothat translates to “fool” or “stupid.”

7. hazard | azarEnglish Words from Spanish HAZARD

There was a dice game from the Middle Ages called Hasard where you put at risk your money or possessions. The name of that game comes from the Old French hasard, which derived from the Spanish wordazar meaning “chance or fortune.”From the French influence the h and the suffix –ard were incorporated.

8. jerky | charqui

With the meaning “meat that has been cut into long strips and dried” comes from the Spanish word charqui or charque. It is likely the Spaniards adopted this word from the Quechua ch’arki.

9. mustang | mostrenco and mestengoEnglish Words from Spanish MUSTANG

Mustangs are horses that directly descended from the ones brought in by the Spaniards. This word was first used in English in 1808 with the spelling mestang and comes from the Spanish words mostrenco and mestengo that means “stray animal.”

10. moment of truth | hora de la verdad

This phrase is a direct translation (calque is the linguistic term) from the Spanish hora de la verdadand it was Ernest Hemingway who used this expression for the first time in English in his bookDeath in the Afternoon published in 1932. The expression hora de la verdad is one of many proprietary phrases from bullfighting that are commonly used in an everyday situation.

The book includes many more words -like ten-gallon hat, rusk and gambit- that also have curious stories. While the book is more extensive in the explanation, you can learn the origin of these words by searching them at the American Heritage Dictionary online.In addition, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the year or period of the first known use of a word in the English language.

I hope you have enjoyed this selection of words and curious stories I read in this book.

Diana Caballero was born in Puerto Rico and together with her husband Jared, an American who learned Spanish as an adult, they created They write about the Spanish language variations and slang they have discovered while living in or traveling to Spanish-speaking countries.


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