Printer Friendly

Spanish contribution to American English word-stock: an overview (1).


English is uniquely open to external influence. Since its own birth, it has been in contact with the languages of very different peoples in Europe: Celts, Teutons, Romans, Franks, etc., and its linguistic system has become more analytic and prone to borrowing.

During the Renaissance, under new social conditions, the English vocabulary was considerably enriched by incorporating many words from foreign sources, notably from the Romance and classical languages. It was precisely at that time, when sixteenth-century Spain was a world power in conflict with the emerging British empire, that the Spanish contribution had its first impact due to the cultural exchanges between Spain and England.

American English has continued and developed this tradition of hospitality. Of key importance among other influences was its inevitable relation with the Hispanic community, for reasons linked first with the Spanish colonization of America and later with military interventionism and the subsequent absorption by the United States of its southern borderlands, which had formerly belonged to Mexico. These historical facts together with the continuous influx of Hispanics from all over Latin America in search of the 'American dream', have made Hispanics the largest immigrant group in the U.S., numbering over 35 million people. The political, economic and cultural potential of the Hispanic sector enhances the interest in Spanish, which is in fashion, and has taken the first place as a second language in the American educational system.

The growing importance of Spanish in the U.S. is reflected in a large increase in research into the language over the last two decades. In a society so aware of the sociolinguistic problems of bilingual education, most studies deal with the distinctive features of Spanish as it is spoken in the United States, and the alternations ("code-switching") and interferences produced between the two languages. With English being the dominant language, particular attention is paid to its influence on Spanish, especially when considering those dialectal areas characterized by a significant language mixture ("Tex-Mex", "Spanglish"). (2) Less attention has been given, however, to the lexical borrowings brought into the English stock by contact with the Spanish language and culture ("hispanicisms"), which constitute a major influence, and are the aim of this study.

For historical reasons, most of the Spanish loanwords in English have originated in the United States. A good number are in general use but most of them are specific to American English, constituting one of its most distinctive features when compared with the British or other varieties of English. The Oxford English Dictionary includes over 1000 words and phrases with a Spanish source, of which nearly 40% are still in current usage (Algeo 1996: 27), and Webster's Third (1961) over 2000. A standard, although obsolete and incomplete dictionary collects Spanish terms in American English (Bentley 1932). More updated recordings of Spanish borrowings can be found in Rodriguez (1996), the most comprehensive monograph on the subject. (3)


When considering Spanish borrowings, one may take this concept in a broad sense, to include words or phrases that have Spanish as the "close source" (or "immediate etymon"), although the "ultimate source" (or "far etymon") might be in another language. Tomato and tamale, for example, are widely viewed as Spanish, although further etymological investigation points to a prehispanic origin, Nahuatl or the language of the Aztecs (tomatl and tamalli; the same applies to Taino cacique, Arabic alcalde, Basque jai-alai, etc. There are terms that have undergone the influence of Spanish and other languages such as Portuguese (comandante, apertura) and Italian (gusto, alfresco), which makes them susceptible to a different classification. One may also take into account expressions like al primo, which have a Spanish flavor although they are non-existent in the Spanish language.

On the other hand, there are words of Spanish origin that are not regarded strictly speaking as Spanish loans, given that English borrowed them directly from some other language. Thus, English veranda 'handrail, balcony' is an Indie borrowing although it has "ultimate" Iberian origin, as it is derived from Spanish or Portuguese baranda, varanda (Algeo 1996:13).

Occasionally some hybrid compounds develop, one constituent being English and the other Spanish, as in pinto beans (= Sp. alubias pintas), whole/big enchilada, locoweed, hot tamale.

Closely related to the issue of borrowing is "calquing". Examples of words and expressions modelled on a Spanish structure are scarce but worth noting; they include liberation theology and fifth column (the translation of teologia de la liberacion and quinta columna), which have also been calqued in other languages; God's eye, from MexSpan ojo de dios, a decorative small cross; dark night (of the soul), from the noche oscura of San Juan de la Cruz; the moment of truth, from el momento de la verdad, drawn from bullfight language and popularized by E. Hemingway. A few others, such as disappeared ones, refried beans, and Shining Path, compete with their equivalent Spanish sources desaparecido, frijoles refritos, and Sendero Luminoso (Cannon 1996: 49).

There are also a few native expressions that, although not proper loanwords, have been coined on the basis of phonetic similarity and rhyme with some Spanish terms This is part of a rising phenomenon known as "Mock Spanish", under which one may class items such as hasty banana 'hasta manana' and hasty lumbago 'hasta luego' (for more on this issue, see Hill 1995).


The morphological and semantic nature of borrowings has varied according to the period in which they were incorporated into English. Early on, many of the words of Spanish origin were transmitted orally from one generation to another and underwent phonological integration which was increased with time to such an extent that today the majority of them are unrecognizable as hispanicisms (e.g., sherry < Xeres [now, Jerez de la Frontera], lariat < la reata, vamoose < vamos, barbecue < barbacoa), etc. An extreme case would be the cowboy word wrangler, which looks English to all appearances but comes from Mexican Spanish caballerango 'groom, stableman' (Dillard 1984: 138; Lodares 1996: 168).

Unlike these early assimilations and corruptions, nowadays there seems to be a tendency to preserve the original morphological features of a term with hardly any alteration (e.g., desaparecidos, mano a mano, rosas 'amphetamines', yerba buena 'marijuana'). This probably has to do with the development and widespread diffusion of the written mass media and the greater familiarity with and acceptance of the Spanish language by the English-speaking peoples.

This tendency to preserve the original morphology leads to borrowing some ready-made double plurals of noun compounds (frijoles refritos, huevos rancheros), thus introducing irregularities in the English inflectional system. Occasionally too, confusion derived from the different inflectional marking of the plural in English leads to a metanalysis when forming the singular, as occurs with E. tamale, -s from Sp. tamal, -es (cr. by contrast, frijol, -es in both languages).

Spanish loanwords may also be subject to a functional shift, sometimes involving remarkable grammatical transformations when adapted to the English verbal system. As noticed by Craddock (1981: 199), the first person singular hortatory imperative vamos 'let's go' spawned the second person command vamoose! 'beat it, scram'. That is, in Spanish, vamos includes the speaker, whereas vamoose in English is usually an imperative addressed to others. He also mentions as a likely derivation the verb mosey to judge from its original meaning 'to move swiftly, scram', although today it is most commonly taken to denote a slow dawdling movement, as in to mosey along.

The naturalness of the functional shift as a word-formation method in English is also reflected in other categories, like nouns and adjectives. Most expectable are noun 6 verb conversions such as to corral (from corral), to coyote (from coyote), to lasso (from lasso < Sp. lazo), or in participle adjectival form (lariated, from lariat < la reata); corraled, from corral; see Salado 1924: 42). Quite striking examples are the conversion into a verb, huevozed (with a meaning similar to vamoose), from the noun huevos ('eggs'), as well as the de-adjectival and hypercorrected participles locoed (from loco; see Salado 1924: 54) and borrachiod (from borraccio, attested in Murray).

Because of the "intimate" contact of Spanish with English in the U.S., Spanish has also left an imprint on English derivational morphology. The suffixes or combining forms that betray Spanish origin include the prolific -teria (washeteria, after cafeteria,) and the "parasitic" -aroo (jivaroo, wackaroo, etc.,) and -eroo (swingeroo, stinkeroo) which appeared in amusing slangy formations in the 1930s by analogy with buckaroo (< Sp. vaquero 'cowboy'). This slangy character is also in other combining forms of recent creation such as -esta (< fiesta) which denotes extra fanfare, celebration, and the like (e.g., jubilesta [<jubilee], Hallowesta < Halloween]) and el -o which constitutes an amusing variation of whatever is infixed (el cheapo 'heap product', el ropo, etc.; see Murray 1996). Still more recent is the incorporation of the Spanish suffix -ista, especially in the political field (Perotista, Clintonista, etc.) which in contrast with English -ist (Perotist, Clintonist) provides the referent with a peculiar pejorative connotation (Rodriguez 1995a).


With regard to semantics, at an early stage the concepts subject to borrowing were chiefly connected with topography (canyon, mesa), fauna (mosquito, alligator), and flora (calabaza, maize) as well as economic activities such as livestock, agriculture and mining (rodeo, vaquero). This was due to the close relation between the land and its people, who were of Spanish origin. Today, however, the items that stand out belong to the shifting world of politics (balsero, caudillo, junta, Sandinista), which continually attracts more and more attention because of the importance of US relations with Latin America (Rodriguez 1996: 61-104). This holds true as far as the written media are concerned, but on the oral and conversational level an important group of innovations consists of words pertaining to the underworld and to slang and unconventional language. Most are closely linked with the narcotics trade and traffic as well as other illegal activities, such as prostitution and smuggling, which are so stereotypically associated with the border area that joins the United Sates and Mexico (e.g., caballo and gato 'heroin', perdida 'whore'; see Murray 1996). Using the degree of formality as a scale, we could place the traditional and more characteristic lexicon of borrowings, which in the eyes of foreigners comprise the stereotype of what is considered to be typically Spanish (words such as siesta, fiesta, flamenco, torero, and senorita) between these two poles.

A great number of hispanic terms borrowed into English have a Latin American--particularly Mexican--stamp, and some are unknown or have a different meaning in European Spanish. Thus, tortilla, which for British holidaymakers in Spain is a 'Spanish omelette', throughout America is taken to mean 'a thin cornmeal pancake'.

Some loanwords undergo semantic changes or develop additional meanings which are not traced in the source language. Thus, English guerrilla (I 809), which in Spanish means a type of 'fight', a 'guerrilla warfare', in English took an agential and personal reference, 'one engaged in that type of warefare', that is, 'a fighter' (cf. Sp. guerrillero). Coyote, which began with the meaning of 'prairie wolf' (in 1824) and 'a contemptible person, a cheat' (from Mexican Sp. coyote < Nahuatl coyotl), later came to designate 'someone who smuggles immigrants illegally from Mexico into the U.S.'

Occasionally, some borrowings are reborrowed in Spanish with meanings which were previously developed in English. Thus, barbecue, which originally comes from Sp. barbacoa, itself a loan from a West Indian dialect, barbacoa 'a raised frame of sticks', (4) later came to mean 'meat cooked upon such a frame', and eventually 'a picnic at which such meat is served', and these two last meanings were borrowed in Spanish under English influence. Lunch, which originally seems to come from Spanish loncha, today is an anglicism with a meaning ('light meal') which has become obsolete in English (see Rodriguez 1993 and 1999). And cowboy, which was calqued after Spanish vaquero ('a man who herds cows'), later extended its meaning ('an man who herds and tends cattle, esp. in the western US') and with this American ranch reference it has been borrowed in most languages.

Most Spanish loans have an "ideational" or "referential" function, as there is no alternative word or established longer expression in English which can replace them without altering the meaning (e.g., cacique, tamale, coyote). There is also a significant number of them that could be classed as "synonymic loans", as their only raison d'etre is to convey an "expressive" or "stylistic" effect, its connotation often being pejorative or referred to a negative, taboo or degrading reality (cojones 'balls', politicos 'politicians', hoosegow ('prison' < Sp. juzgado), turista 'diarrhea' [caused by dysentery, an illness which American tourists often get] and siesta 'afternoon nap', which connotes laziness).


Although not listed as loanwords, placenames undoubtedly trace, better than any other names, the historical influence of one country on another. Names may come and go but placenames tend to stay, although sometimes in altered form. Hispanic placenames are significantly preserved in the United States, from Florida to California, for the simple reason that this land was Spanish before it was inhabited by English-speaking people, and that large stretches of the country, in the Southwest, belonged to Mexico until last century. But Spanish influence is also noted in various parts of Canada (especially in the west, i.e. British Columbia) and in the Caribbean Islands (Trinidad, Jamaica, etc.).

The places which preserve a Spanish name are of very different sorts. One usually thinks of names of cities and towns, but one should also consider rivers, mountains, canyons, etc. No doubt, the most visible indication of such influence in the United States is the name of states. At least eight of them (Texas, Nevada, Florida, etc.) are of Spanish origin.

Usually names were given at the time of discovery or shortly afterwards and, when they were needed, they were taken from a great variety of sources. There are placenames which are derived from the titles of Spanish dignitaries (Philippines, for King Philip I| of Spain), or which bear the name of the conqueror or the missionary, or the saint of the day on which they were discovered or founded (San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Monica). Others evoke a special deed, event, or incident of the voyages of the first explorers (Canada del Hambre, Roblar de la Miseria, etc.). For a comprehensive bibliography on this subject, see Rodriguez (1995b).


When one examines the extent of the influence of Spanish on English, one is struck not only but its quantitative weight, but also by the fact that it affects numerous levels of the linguistic system. My own examination of Spanish as a donor language and my ongoing compilation of words and expressions of Spanish origin in the English language proves that Spanish remains a vital influence on English. Furthermore, if we consider the intimacy of English-Spanish contacts in North America both at the present time and historically, and the "intimate borrowings" (Bloomfield) resulting from such interaction, together with the growing importance of the Spanish-speaking population, it is doubtful whether any other modern language is likely to rival Spanish in the immediate future (5).

(1) A shorter and slightly different version of this article was published in American Speech, in the the Fall issue of 2000 (75.3: 292-94), on the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary. I would like to express my gratitude to the Generalitat Valenciana and the University of Alicante for the financial support given me in 1998 and 2001 to continue with this research.

(2) For a recent and comprehensive dictionary of Spanglish, see Stavans (2001).

(3) For reviews of this book, see Emilio Lorenzo, "La deuda hispanica del ingles", Saber leer, 107, August-Sept. (1997), 6-7; Emma Martinell, 27, 2 (1997), 525-528; Roger Wright, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, July 1997, 374-375; Manfred Grolach, International Journal of Lexicography, 11, 1 (1998), 65-66; Robert Baumgardner, World Englishes, 18, 1 (1999), 92-95; Alan Kaye, Multilingua, 18, 441-443.

(4) For J.M. Carriere, English barbecue may not come directly from Spanish barbacoa, but from a Canadian word, baroka, derived from a Western Indian language and signifying a frame for roasting or smoking meat (see Mencken 1945:178).

(5) See Cannon (1996: 44), who claims that the latest lexicographic corpus shows that Japanese influence may have surpassed that of Spanish.


Algeo, John 1996: "Spanish Loanwords in English before 1900". Rodriguez 13-40.

Bentley, Harold W. 1932: A Dictionary of Spanish Terms in English with Special Reference to the American Southwest. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bloomfield, Leonard 1933: Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Cannon, Garland 1996: "Recent Borrowings from Spanish into English". Rodriguez 41-60.

Craddock, Jerry R. 1981: "New World Spanish". Language in the USA. Eds. Charles A. Ferguson and Shirley B. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 196-211.

Dillard, J.L. 1984: "Frontier speechways--Old and new--". Toward a Social History of American English. Berlin: Mouton. 129-64.

Hill, Jane 1995: "Mock Spanish: The Indexical Reproduction of Racism in American English".

Lodares, Juan Ramon 1996: "Hispanic Tracks in English: Cowboys and Gold-rushers in the Old West". Rodriguez 157-76.

Mencken, H.L. 1945 [1978]: The American language: Supplement I. [Reprinted New York: Knopf.]

Murray, Thomas 1996: "Spanish Borrowings in Contemporary American Slang". Rodriguez 105-37.

Oxford English Dictionary 1989: 2nd ed. 20 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.

Rodriguez Gonzalez, Felix 1993: "The Naming of Meals". English Today 35: 45-52.

-- 1995a: "Spanish Influence on Word-Formation: The Suffix -ista". American Speech 70.4: 421-29.

-- 1995b: "Toponimia espanola en los paises de habla inglesa. Bibliografia comentada". Nouvelle Revue d'Onomastique 25-26:223-31.

-- ed. 1996: Spanish Loanwords in the English Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

-- 1999: "Sociolinguistic Variation in the Names of Meals". Cuadernos de Filologia Inglesa 8:97-116.

Salado Alvarez, Victoriano 1924: Mejico peregrino. Mejicanismos supervivientes en el ingles de Norteamerica. Mejico: Talleres graficos del Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Historia y Etnografia.

Stavans, Ilan 2001: The Sounds of Spanglish. An Illustrated Lexicon. New York: Basic Books.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 1961: Springfield: Merriam-Webster.

Felix Rodriguez Gonzalez

Universidad de Alicante
COPYRIGHT 2001 Spanish Association for Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rodriguez Gonzalez, Felix
Publication:Atlantis, revista de la Asociacion Espanola de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Previous Article:Metaphor-based cluster models and conceptual interaction: the case of 'time' (1).
Next Article:A reclamation of masculine space: Wilbur Smith's manipulation of space in the Courtney saga.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters