Spanish Loanwords in American English

Seminar Paper, 2009

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0

Claus Arnold (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Borrowings before the Nineteenth Century

3. Spanish Terms Adopted in the Nineteenth Century
3.1 Terms Adopted in the Mining Culture
3.2 Borrowings from the Cattle-Raising Culture
3.3 Other Semantic Fields than Mining and Cowboy Culture

4. Twentieth-Century Borrowings

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The present paper is concerned with Spanish loanwords adopted by the English language on the American continent. Among the foreign influences, Spanish is the strongest, at least since the onset of the nineteenth century (cf. Pyles 196). This is scarcely a big surprise since “significant interaction with Spanish speakers has continued from the early days of British exploration to the present time” (Marckwardt 47).

The borrowings will be dealt with in a fairly chronological order and, as far as possible, summed up in semantic fields. In Chapter 2 I will present the borrowings before the nineteenth century. Chapter 3 deals with loanwords in the nineteenth century, the most productive century of Spanish loanwords in American English. Many terms are adopted in the field of the ranching and cowboy culture in the entire Southwest and the mining industry in Northern California which is why subchapter 3.1 is dedicated to borrowings in the mining culture and 3.2 to those in the cattle-raising culture. In 3.3 I will treat nineteenth- century loanwords from other semantic fields. Chapter 4 is about the borrowings from the twentieth century which are a result of the Mexican-American War and particularly of the big immigration wave from Latin America into the US. In the conclusion I will first sum up some typical phonological and morphological features in the treatment of Spanish loanwords in American English. Then I will give a short concluding overview of the periods and semantic fields of the influx of Spanish loanwords into American English.

2. Borrowings before the Nineteenth Century

Since there was relatively little contact between English speakers and Spanish speakers before the Louisiana Purchase in North America, we find only few loanwords before the nineteenth century (Mencken 1948: 198). Mencken outlines that the “early Americans, in fact, had very little contact with the Spaniards; they knew the Dutch and French much better.“ (1948: 198) Many Spanish loanwords from the early times were Spanish adoptions of Indian words, picked up by early adventurers in the West Indies which were part of the Spanish Main (cf. Marckwardt 47, Mencken 1943: 112). We can attribute them to plants like banana, tobacco, tomato, tapioca, potato and chocolate. Likewise cannibal and hammock were adopted.

Barbecue comes from the Haitian word barbacoa and was adopted in American English by way of Spanish in the seventeenth century (Mencken 1943: 112). Originally it signified a frame for sleeping. In the American use it acquired the meaning of a frame used for roasting or smoking meat by 1709, and the sense of a social gathering highlighted by food on a barbecue in 1733 (Mencken 1948: 178). Canoe comes from the Spanish borrowing of Haitian canoa from the sixteenth century. After two centuries of a broad range of spelling variations, the present form canoe became fixed at the end of the eighteenth century (cf. Mencken 1948: 178 f).

Genuine Spanish words loaned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are mosquito “little fly” which also had variations like muscato, moscheto and musqueto (cf. Mencken 1948: 112), armada “armed (naval) forces”, peccadillo “little sin”, and alligator from el lagarto “the lizard” (cf. Pyles 1952: 54). Key “reef or low island”, which is traced to 1604, came from Spanish cayo and is not unambiguously an Americanism. But its use is mainly restricted to America and particularly to Florida. Key West is according to Pyles (1952: 55) a modification of Cayo Hueso “bone key”.

Ethnological terms are popular early borrowings from Spanish to English. Thus, Negro or Nigro was borrowed to mean a black man, whereas mestizo and mulatto designate a person of mixed race. Creole is an indirect loan by way of Lousiana French and was originally written criollo (Marckwardt 52). It referred to a person of European, later French, ancestry which was born in the Spanish colonies, or later in the French sense, in Louisiana (cf. Marckwardt 52).

As Pyles (1952: 54 f) outlines, the early borrowings from Spanish were also mostly known in England, although some of them are more frequently used in America than in England. Therefore they “should be distinguished from words taken from Spanish by English-speaking people” on the American continent (Pyles 1952: 55). Mencken comments: ”Direct loans from Spanish were very rare before 1800; indeed, I can find none that were not anticipated in English use, though they may have been borrowed independently here.” (1948: 197) Cockroach designating a beetle-like insect may be analyzed as an Americanism adopted from Spanish because it first appeared in the General Historie of Virginia by Captain John Smith in 1624 (cf. Mencken 1943: 112). It comes from Spanish cucaracha and is thus a folk etymology. Later it has clipped to roach presumably due to American verbal prudery and the erroneous belief that it is a compound of cock and roach (cf. Pyles 1952: 55). Jerk as in jerked meat “sun-dried meat cut in strips” comes from Spanish charquear which is adopted from a Peruvian Indian language (Mencken 1943: 112). Calaboose “jail” from calabozo is first recorded in 1792 which entered American English by way of Louisiana French (DAE).

3. Spanish Terms Adopted in the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century marked the most productive period of Spanish loans in American English (cf. Algeo 24). Anglo-Americans from the East Coast moved westward and encountered both the mining culture in California and cattle-raising culture, henceforth also called hacienda or cowboy culture, in the entire North American Southwest. The Anglo-Americans had to adopt many Spanish terms when they became engaged in these hispanized businesses (cf. Lodares 157 ff).

3.1 Terms Adopted in the Mining Culture

Terms from the mining culture that spread across the entire US are small in number. In fact, most sources only name two or three. However, I will cover in brief also the regional expressions.

Words only known to experts of mining culture in Northern California were designations for variants of veins like clavadas, echadas, oblicuas, etc. according to their location. Spanish names for geological features were adopted such as laza “soft land” or sombre “the grey shade of certain minerals.” A gold miner was a gambusino, the greaser, from Spanish grasero, was the man who worked in foundries, and the arreador was a boy who tended the horses to be employed in mining works (cf. Lodares 164). According to Lodares (166), among the more than eight hundred gold-rush hispanicisms in English only a few made it to other regions of America and to the “common” American vocabulary. One of the most known terms is bonanza. Originally it meant “fair or calm weather” in Spanish, from there it gained the meaning “good luck” and was metaphorically changed into “a rich and extensive vein of minerals” (Lodares 162; DAE). When we turn to minerals and deposits, placer may be the most typical one. It is a glacial or alluvial deposit containing particles of gold or other valuable minerals (cf. Lodares 161). El Dorado, literally the “golden land”, was used in the American sense for a place in the West, especially California after the discovery of gold (DAE). It should be clear that there was a strong Hispanic influence on the mining trade by means of words.

3.2 Borrowings from the Cattle-Raising Culture

The cattle-raising culture marks the contact between the English speakers from the East Coast and Mexican cowboys. It cannot be traced to a specific state, but the entire Southwest of today´s United States, i.e. from Texas to California. Raising of livestock and cowboy culture have Hispanic roots and therefore a wide range of Spanish terms are borrowed by American English in this industry (cf. Lodares 166).

It is probably most reasonable to start with Spanish denotations for the cowboy himself. Long before the term cowboy was established in its current use referring to the “Far West”, only in 1870, English had used the Spanish vaquero since 1727, which developed phonetic and orthographic variants. (cf. Lodares 168). Buckaroo may be the most common one of those. Mencken (1943: 152) notes that in the American West vaquero quickly acquired the special sense of a Mexican cowboy and that buckaroo seems to have dropped out so that today there only exist the expressions cow-puncher, cow-hand or simply cowboy for this legendary figure. Further names are caballero with the meaning of a horseman or a gentleman from 1837. Caballerango “groom, stableman” becomes naturalized wrangler (cf. Lodares 168), which is, however, not exemplified before 1888 (cf. DAE). Peon was a servant and received the additional meaning of a lower-class person in the 1840s (cf. DAE).

The two terms which are possibly the most accepted loans from livestock culture are ranch(o) and rodeo (cf. Lodares 171). Both are not limited to American Spanish and had different meanings before they were borrowed on the new continent. Rancho was used in Spain for “a boarding house” and as a sea-word for “the part of the ship where sailors and travellers slept”. American English adopted the word in the sense of “a large farm for raising cattle”. The final -o is usually clipped and the word is immensely productive bringing forward compounds such as ranchman or ranch house. Hacienda, adopted at the beginning of the eighteenth century (DAE), is a term for a great estate or ranch, but much less used. Rodeo was according to Lodares (171) adopted by American English with the meaning “round-up of cattle”, and received its more common and popular significance “exhibition of lassoing” only in 1914.


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Spanish Loanwords in American English
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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Lehnwörter;, Amerikanisches Englisch;, Loanwords;, Spanisch, USA, Spanisch USA
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Claus Arnold (Author), 2009, Spanish Loanwords in American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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