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.

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.


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)
Rex Features
Show Hide image

Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage