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Words, words, words…

Many people have something to say about Spanglish, whether positive or negative, but it is sometimes all too easy to forget that it is a two-way street, and that Spanish, and the indigenous languages of the Americas, have given a lot of words to the English language.

Macmillan Dictionary Blog

There are food-related words via Nahuatl: avocado (incidentally the Nahuatl word for cojones), chili and cocoa, and those from Spanish; taco, tortilla and, of course, tequila. Then there are words to do with peoples’ ideas of Hispanic countries, sombrero, maracas, castanets (from castañas ‘chestnuts’), even guitar, not to mention latino. Words from indigenous languages other than Nahuatl have enriched English too, with native species animal terms like condor (Quechua) and jaguar (Tupí-Guaraní).

Lots of words originally from Arabic have passed through the filter of Spanish and are now part and parcel of the English language. Algebra and alcohol are two well-known examples, but there are words like cork which seem very Anglo-Saxon, but whose roots are more complicated. In this case, from Arabic qurq, which entered Spanish as corcha.  Even the name of Gibraltar is the Spanish and English mangling of the Arabic Jabal al-Tariq; where, according to Tito Vallejo, the English spoken sometimes bears distinctive hallmarks of a Spanish turn of phrase. “Will you please stop giving us the tin”, for example, which is nonsensical everywhere else, but is an analogy of the Spanish phrase dar la lata ‘to be a nuisance’.

The long histories between Spain, the Americas, and the U.K. has made some Spanish words so mainstream that it is hard to think of them as being Spanish at all. In the U.S., the state names Arizona, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Montana, and California are testament to their previous incarnations as 15th century Spanish colonies. Trade links between the U.K. and Spain brought words like contraband, hammock (from Spanish hamaca, originally from Taíno), barricade, bravado and mosquito into English, and let’s not forget macho and patio and even vamoose (from vamos ‘let’s go’).

Popular culture has played a big role too. Where would we be without Gasolina (Daddy Yankee), La Vida Loca (Ricky Martin), Hasta la Vista (Terminator) or Ay, Caramba! (Bart Simpson)?

Without Spanish, Quechua, Nahuatl, Tupí-Guaraní, and others, it is fairly safe to say that English would be immeasurably poorer. You might be able to make do without Tabasco and rodeo, but a life without chocolate (from the Nahuatl meaning ‘bitter water’) would be sad one, for sure!

(Etymological sources used: The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings; The Yanito Dictionary by Tito Vallejo; Filthy English: the How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing by Peter Silverton)

 Camila Garces, Guest Contributor

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. A really nice article! Thank you for this! Hope to see more culturally inspired pieces rather than DNC/CPUSA talking points.

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