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Dollar and booze: English words that aren't really English

The British Council's new exhibition has revealed the top 10 English words that originated overseas.

New Statesman
King Alfred the Great's translation of the 'Compendious History of the World' by Paulus Orosius from Latin into Anglo-Saxon or Old English. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s widely known that the English language is an amalgamation of words originating from different countries and cultures. Words like hula, a hip-swinging dance from Hawaii, obviously didn't originate in Britain. But what about shampoo or booze? Surely these words are British through and through? Not according to the British Council.

As part of their new exhibition, The English Effect, which examines the impact the English language has had on other countries and cultures around the world, they have revealed the top ten English words that didn’t originate in Britain.

Here is their definitive list:

Dollar (German)

Dollar tops the list. Despite being synonymous with America, the word originates from the German Taler, a coin first minted in 1519 from silver mined in Joachimsthal. The word occurs in English from the mid-1500s, referring to various silver coins coins used in the British colonies in North America at the time of the War of Independence. The dollar was later adopted as the US currency in 1785.

Booze (Dutch)

Booze (earlier spelt bouse) comes from the medieval Dutch verb būsen – “to drink to excess”. It appeared in medieval English, but it is found more frequently in the 1500s, in the language of thieves and beggars. It then gradually spread to general slang and colloquial use.

Bungalow (Hindi or Bengali)

Many believe the urban myth about bungalow: that the word was coined after a builder was told to “bung a low roof” on a house when he ran out of bricks. But bungalow was actually first recorded in the 1600s, when one-storey houses were built for early European settlers in Bengal. It comes from a Hindi or Bengali word meaning “belonging to Bengal”.

Tomato (Nahuatl – Mexico)

The word tomato has been passed from country to country. Originating from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), the Spanish language borrowed it in the 1530s, before it came into English in the 1600s. Originally, the word was spelled tomatl, and may come from tomau meaning “to grow”.

Zombie (West African via the Caribbean)

Zombie originated in West African languages as a combination of Kikongo zumbi – meaning fetish – and Kimbundu nzambi, meaning god. But it made its way into the English language via communities in the Caribbean, southern America and other parts of the US where African communities had been brought over as part of the slave trade.

Vampire (Hungarian)

Unsurprisingly, the origins of vampire lie in Eastern Europe. Fictional tales like Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula, the most famous of all the vampires, place him in this part of the world. The word found its way into the English language from the Hungarian word vampir.

Parka (Russian)

Parka came into English from Russian in the 1620s, but it originated among the Nenets people of the Arctic regions of Russia, originally referring their jackets made from animal skins. In the 1890s it began to be found referring to a hooded winter coat.

Shampoo (Hindi)

The meaning of the word shampoo has evolved over time. Its probable origin is the Hindi word cām.po, meaning “press”, but its original meaning in English was “to massage”, before it later came to mean “to wash or scrub (the head or hair)”. Finally, shampoo now means the substance we use for washing hair.

Magazine (Arabic)

In its original form, the word magazine meant “storehouse”. Originating from Arabic, spelled mak- zin, the word entered the English language from French in the 1500s. Reference to its original meaning can be seen both in modern French, where magasin means “shop”, and modern English military uses of magazine.

Avatar (Sanskrit)

No, science-fiction didn’t invent the word Avatar, it came from the ancient language of Sanskrit, meaning “the descent of a Hindu deity to the Earth in bodily form”. Entering English in the late 1700s, the modern, sci-fi, use of the word emerged in the mid-1980s.