Last year, we celebrated Independence Day by covering several common English words adapted from other languages. For this lesson, we’re going look at five more everyday words rooted in languages other than English.
Algebra: The late Middle English “algebra” comes from Italian, Spanish, and Medieval Latin. These languages in turn, derived the word from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning “the reunion of broken parts” or “bone setting.” This original sense of the word as a medical term still survives in Spanish.
The modern English meaning, a branch of mathematics, comes from the title of the book ilm al-jabr wa’l-muḳābala (“the science of restoring what is missing and equating like with like”) by Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Ḵwārizm.
Cola: One of several English words for a sweetened, carbonated soft drink, “cola” is a Latinized form of kola, which is a genus of trees indigenous to West Africa. The “kola nut” was the primary source of caffeine in early soft drinks and is still used in as flavoring in some colas today.
Embarrass: The origin of “embarrass,” meaning “to feel self-conscious, shameful, or awkward,” is unclear. Several sources cite the French French embarrasser (“to block, obstruct”). Others indicate that the English embarrassed, French embarrasser, and Spanish embarazar all derived from the Portuguese embaraçado (“to be self-conscious or ashamed”).
Whatever the word’s true origin, the meaning appears to be fairly consistent across languages. It is worth noting that the Spanish embarazar and the similarly-spelled embarazada have very different meanings, with the latter meaning “pregnant.”
Mustache: A late 16th century French word, “mustache” can be traced all the way back to Hellenistic Greek. μύσταξ (mustax, mustak-; “upper lip/facial hair”), was transmitted to Medieval Greek as μοστάκιον (moustakion), before making its way to Medieval Latin as moustaccium, 14th century Italian as moustacio, and finally, French.
Pajama: This common word for sleepwear comes from early 19th century Persian and Urdu. A combination of pāy and jāma, pajamas are quite literally “leg clothing.” Note that the UK English spelling “pyjama” drops different letters when merging the source words than its American English counterpart does.