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)
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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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