8 Words That Originated from Native American Languages

Exploring the Linguistic Legacy

Languages are not just tools for communication; they are living embodiments of history and culture. Native American languages have significantly enriched English, contributing several words that we use today. These words reflect the deep connection Indigenous peoples have with nature, their spiritual beliefs, and their societal structures. Here, we delve into eight English words that originated from various Native American languages, each carrying its own unique story.


The word "chipmunk" derives from the Ojibwe word "ajidamoo," which translates to "red squirrel." This adaptation highlights how English speakers modified the original pronunciation and meaning to better fit the phonetics and contexts of English. The chipmunk, a small, nimble creature, is often seen darting across the landscape in North America, its name echoing its native roots every time it's called.


One of the most beloved treats worldwide, chocolate, owes its name to the Nahuatl word "xocolātl," meaning "bitter water." Used to describe the traditional drink made from cacao seeds, the term entered the Spanish language during the colonization of the Americas before making its way into English. This example reflects not only linguistic borrowing but also the global spread of indigenous products and practices.


Comfort found in the embrace of a hammock has origins in the Taíno culture of the Caribbean, where the word "hamaka" referred to a "fish net." Over time, Spanish colonizers adopted the term for the woven hanging beds, and it eventually entered English lexicons. The hammock is a testament to the ingenuity of the Taíno people, illustrating their influence that extends beyond direct linguistic contributions.


The word "kayak" comes from the Greenlandic Inuit word "qajaq," which directly translates to "man's boat." This term is a profound example of how specific cultural elements, such as the Inuit's expert crafting of personal, lightweight hunting boats, have been integrated into global language and practices.


Moccasin, a type of footwear, originates from the Powhatan word "makasin." This term denotes a shoe made of soft leather, a style that was essential for travel across the diverse terrains of North America. The adaptation of this word into English underlines the practical and cultural exchanges between Native Americans and European settlers.


"Moose" is derived from the Eastern Abenaki word "moz," which means "twig eater." This name charmingly refers to the animal’s habit of feeding on the tender twigs and shoots of young trees. The word not only traveled linguistically but also brought with it imagery of the North American wilderness, showcasing the deep ecological knowledge of Native Americans.


The word "pecan" is taken from the Algonquian word, which roughly means "a nut requiring a stone to crack." It reflects not only the physical characteristics of the pecan nut but also hints at the methods employed by indigenous peoples for its consumption. This word's journey into English cuisine and culture is emblematic of the broader exchange of agricultural practices and foods.


Finally, "squash" comes from the Narragansett word "askutasquash," meaning "eaten raw or uncooked." Indigenous peoples of the Americas cultivated various types of squash, playing a crucial role in their diets. The adoption of the word—and the vegetable itself—into English is another reflection of the deep agricultural knowledge and practices that were shared with European settlers.

These eight words are mere representatives of the vast contributions Native American languages have made to English. Each term not only enriches the vocabulary but also serves as a reminder of the complex and often overlooked narratives intertwined in the history of language. Through these words, we glimpse the profound intercultural connections and exchanges that have shaped, and continue to shape, our linguistic landscapes.