Language Dossier

American English Words: Where Do They Come From?

The first American English words were borrowed from Indian languages. They were usually words for things that were not familiar to the settlers in the New World. There were animals that were native to America -chipmunks and raccoons and skunks- and trees and plants that grew only in the New World - hickory trees and hominy and squash. There were no English words for things that were made by the Indians - moccasins and teppees and wigwams- so the settlers learned and used the Indian names for them.

The settlers came from many different countries: England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain. Each group brought its own language. The Dutch word that meant "someone who hires workers" was baas. Other people heard the word but they didn't know the correct spelling. Soon the word was changed to boss and it became part of the American English language.

There was a Dutch salad that was made with cabbage. It was called koolsla. It was delicious but people who didn't speak Dutch couldn't pronounce its name. They called it cole slaw (it is still called cole slaw and it is eaten today).

Words were borrowed from other languages too. Sometimes the spelling and pronunciation were changed, but the meaning was kept. The Spanish word guitarra was changed to guitar, but the meaning (and the music) stayed the same. However, banana is the same in English as it is in Spanish. And the little brown animal with the big ears is called a burro in both languages.

The word chowder, which means "a thick soup usually made with fish and vegetables", comes from the French word chaudière, which means "a large pot". (A chaudière was probably used to maked chowder). Restaurant is spelled the same way in French and English, and means "a place to eat" in many languages.

The American Dictionary of the English Language, which was written by Noah Webster, was first published in 1828. About 70,000 words were defined in its 400 pages. Since then thousands of things have been invented and names have been made up for them. Automobile, bicycle, helicopter, radio, television, locomotive, computer, and record player were not included in Noah Webster's first dictionary, but they are in every English dictionary that is published now.

Many scientific discoveries have been made since 1828. Most of the words for diseases (such as diabetes and tuberculosis) and medicines (such as insulin and penicillin) and the words for the poeple who discovered them (such as biologist and chemist) came into English from Latin or Greek.

Hundreds of new materials have been invented. Plastic, Orlon and nylon are only a few of the words that have been added to English in this way. Right now, lexicographers (people who make dictionaries) are gathering lists of words that will be added to the next dictionary.   

Noah Webster


Noah Webster, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-78299

  • Lexicographer, author and editor Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758
  • Believed spellings were needlessly complicated, and tried to simplify them
  • Many changes were adopted into American English - "traveled", "defense" and "color", for example
  • He also wanted to change "women" to "wimmen" and "tongue" to "tung", but neither was adopted
  • Learned 26 languages in order to write An American Dictionary of the English language - published in 1828 (22 years after his first dictionary) it had 70,000 entries
  • Many Americans learned how to read using his famous Blue Backed Speller