It’s estimated that around three quarters of Spanish vocabulary is derived from vulgar Latin. Add on another six-ten per cent from Arabic, and you’ve still got another 15-20 per cent to play with. So where do all the other words come from? In vague historical order, mainly: Basque, Celtic, Greek, Visigoth, Catalan, Portuguese, Gallego, German, the indigenous languages of the Americas, Caló (Spanish Romani), Italian, French and English.
Sometimes you come across a weird-looking-written-sounding’ word that clearly seems to have flown in from another planet (or at least continent, country, culture); words like chirimoya, chirimiri, arbolengo, panqueque, bazofia, chungo. Once you start unearthing etymologies, however, you soon discover that even common garden words such as jamón, izquierda, tapa, funcionario, ropa and mejillón were, in fact, borrowed from various neighbours, settlers and invaders.
Here’s a little quiz. Which language do the following groups of words come from?
Choose from: Basque, English, Nahautl (Aztec – Central Mexico), Catalan, Caló (gypsy language), Visigoth, French, Italian, Taíno (pre-Colombian language of much of the Caribbean). Then check your answers below.
- Chungo (rotten, iffy), curro (work), chorizo (thief)
- Aguacate (avocado), tomate, chocolate
- Panqueque (pancake), bol (bowl), pudin (pudding)
- Ropa (clothes), tapa (lid), abolengo (ancestry)
- Chal (shawl), jamón, funcionario (state employee)
- Piloto, novela, bazofia (pig swill)
- Izquierda (left), chabola (slum), chirimiri (drizzle)
- Butifarra (truncheon-like sausage), fango (mud), faena (work)
- Cacique (political clique), huracán (hurricane), barbacoa
1. Caló The gypsy dialect of Spain consists of Romany vocabulary and Castilian grammar. Street Spanish owes much of its colour to Caló words such as chaval (lad, boy, matey), mangar (to swipe / nick), chachi (cute, neat) and chichi (certain part of female anatomy).
2. Nauhatl Cacao (cocoa), cacauhete (peanut), coyote, gaucamole and chicle (gum, chewing-gum) are some of the other 200 words from Nahautl admitted by the RAE. Tomate is how the Spanish conquistadores transcribed ‘tomatl’ – which means literally ‘big fat fuit’. ‘Ahaucatl’ (avocado), on the other hand, means ‘testicle fruit’ …
3.English Aside from all the technological stuff from the 20th and 21st centuries, a number of words – like bol, pudin and panqueque (or panqué) – came into Spanish during the on-and-off period of British rule in Menorca in the 18th century. If you go to Menorca you can still put grevi on your meat, get your shoes mended at the xumeca or buy a tornescru (screwdriver) at the hardware store.
4.Visigoth The Visigoths hung around Hispania from the 5th-8th centuries, ruling on behalf of the declining Roman Empire. They left a small but important legacy of everyday words, military terms, first names and surnames. Guerra (war), ganar (win), espía (spy), sala (main room) and rico (rich) all come from the Visigoth. As indeed do the names Alfonso, Gonzalo, Rodrigo, Alberto and Álvaro.
5. French A number of Gallicisms snuck into the Castilian lexis during the Middle Ages via the Camino de Santiago, and in the 18th century when the Bourbons took up the Spanish throne. From the first period came words such as jamón, joya (jewel), coraje (courage), batalla (battle); and from the second, bufanda (scarf), gabinete (cabinet), carné (card) and – possibly – funcionario (state employee).
6. Italian Italian loan words were absorbed into Castilian during the Renaissance and during Spain’s Golden Age (16th-17th centuries). Many of these are similar or the same in English, French and other languages: words like piloto, casino, villa, pedante, and bronce.
7. Basque Basque, or Euskera, is unlike any other language on the planet and was spoken in western Europe before the ancestors of all the other modern western European languages arrived. Pizarra (slate), Izquierda (left), chatarra (junk: old iron) and zulo (hidey-hole for stashing stolen goods – or kidnapped people) are all derived from Basque. Izquierda, from ‘eskerr’ is probably a compound of ‘esk’, meaning ‘hand’, and the Celtic ‘kerros’, meaning ‘twisted’.
8. Catalan I don’t even like sausages but butifarra is one of my favourite Catalan-borrowed words, as indeed are the sonorous cantimplora (water bottle) and armatoste (hideous piece of junk).
9. Taíno Huracán was bit of a give away – and perhaps cacique, too, if you’re a rum drinker. (Cacique is one the best-selling dark rums in Spain). In pre-Colombian America, the caciques were the tribal chiefs; in modern Spain they are your friendly neighbourhood bigwigs, tyrants and abusers of power.
Oh, and mejillon comes the Portuguese, mexilhão.