English words and their origins

English words and their origins


I was recently watching a documentary, which claimed that horses are so important to the nomadic people of Mongolia, that they have over 300 words to describe them.

This set me thinking about how languages are inextricably linked to their culture, and how English is no exception. In what other language would you find so many words for rain? Deluge, down-pour, drizzle, hail, monsoon, precipitation, rainfall, shower, sleet, spit, … to name but a few, but then again, England does have a lot of it!


Where do all the words in English come from? The British have a history of importing new words, and the English language contains examples from a wide variety of sources. Some are from local neighbours such as Italian and French, but there are also introductions from more distant cousins such as Hebrew and Chinese. This assimilation has been going on for centuries: deluge arrived in the 14th century from French, whilst monsoon, which first appeared two centuries later, derives from the Arabic ‘mausam’ via Dutch and Portuguese.

But is any of this surprising given the history of the British Isles? Invaded by the Romans, Vikings and French, with a history of trade with India, China and the Americas, Britain has been a melting pot of language for over 2000 years. English has, arguably, the largest vocabulary of any language, which reflects the diversity of British culture.

So… Can you guess the roots of these English words?

malaria, quarantine, cinnamon, ketchup, alcohol, aardvark, vindaloo