Home on the Rancho: Exploring the English language’s Spanish loanwords

Roughly 60% of your average English dictionary contains words borrowed from Romance languages — the vast majority of which come from French and Latin.

French and Latin are notorious for their impact on the English language. This past April, MultiLingual explained the ways in which the French language has left its impact on English. While French is by far the living language with the largest linguistic impact on the English language, its sister languages have also left a mark on the mutt of a Germanic language we call English.

Take Spanish, for instance. Many of the words derived from Spanish entered North American English first, due to the complicated relationship between the United States and the former Spanish territories in Latin America, particularly Mexico. 

Quite a few Spanish loanwords made their way into English by way of the European varieties of the two languages, however — for instance, the word “jade” is derived from an English and French corruption of the Spanish, “piedra de ijada” that entered English in the 1590s, long before English speakers had fully colonized North America. Likewise, “sherry” (that is, the wine) comes from the Peninsular Spanish word “Jerez,” the name of a city near which the wine is produced.

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Unlike the relationship between French and English, there’s less of a clean-cut story behind the Spanish words that entered English. While thousands of French words entered English as a result of the Norman Conquest of the British Isles in 1066, Spanish speakers never quite held the same level of cultural or political hegemony over English speakers necessary to shift the lexical character of the language.

Many of the Spanish words that entered English came as a result of intercultural dynamics between English speakers and Spanish speakers in Florida and the West and Southwest regions of what’s now the United States — most of which were once Spanish colonies. When English speakers started moving in and colonizing the territories of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California (among others), these areas were known for their rugged, dry terrain and a rural ranching culture. 

It’s not surprising, then, that many of the Spanish loanwords that have been adapted into English have to do with ranching and other things we associate with the “Wild West” nowadays. For example:

  • “Ranch” comes from the Spanish “rancho,” meaning “small farm, group of farm huts”
  • “Buckaroo” comes from the Spanish “vaquero,” meaning “cowboy”
  • “Corral” comes from the Spanish “corral” or “corro,” meaning “circle, ring”

Of course, there are a lot of obvious loanwords from Spanish to English. Words having to do with place names, foods, and others have mostly entered English unchanged. Among them are words like “tortilla,” “California,” “arepa,” and “cabana.” While these words are interesting in their own right, the English language boasts many words that have evolved so much — either in meaning, pronunciation, or spelling — that most people might not even recognize their Spanish origins. Many of these Spanish words — for example “mestengo” — are considered somewhat archaic, but remain in wide use in English. Here are just a few examples:

English word Spanish origin Meaning of the Spanish form
abalone abulón abalone
albatross albatros, alcatraz pelican (likely derived from an Arabic word meaning “sea eagle”)
alligator el lagarto the lizard
breeze briza cold northeast wind
bronco bronco untamed
cargo cargar to load, charge
cockroach cucaracha cockroach
dubloon doblón a type of gold coin
embargo embargar to restrain, arrest
lasso lazo slipknot
mustang mestengo, mesteño wild, stray (in reference to an animal)
platinum platina (a diminutive of “plata”) little silver
rodeo rodear to surround, move around
savvy sabe third person, singular conjugation of the verb “to know”
stampede estampida stampede, uproar
tornado tronada thunderstorm
vanilla vainilla (a diminutive of “vaina”) little pod, vanilla
vigilante vigilante watchman

 

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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