Words in English public website
LING 216
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer


Major Periods of Borrowing
in the History of English

Loanwords are words adopted by the speakers of one language from a different language (the source language). A loanword can also be called a borrowing. The abstract noun borrowing refers to the process of speakers adopting words from a source language into their native language. "Loan" and "borrowing" are of course metaphors, because there is no literal lending process. There is no transfer from one language to another, and no "returning" words to the source language. They simply come to be used by a speech community that speaks a different language from the one they originated in.

Borrowing is a consequence of cultural contact between two language communities. Borrowing of words can go in both directions between the two languages in contact, but often there is an asymmetry, such that more words go from one side to the other. In this case the source language community has some advantage of power, prestige and/or wealth that makes the objects and ideas it brings desirable and useful to the borrowing language community. For example, the Germanic tribes in the first few centuries A.D. adopted numerous loanwords from Latin as they adopted new products via trade with the Romans. Few Germanic words, on the other hand, passed into Latin.

The actual process of borrowing is complex and involves many usage events (i.e. instances of use of the new word). Generally, some speakers of the borrowing language know the source language too, or at least enough of it to utilize the relevant words. They adopt them when speaking the borrowing language. If they are bilingual in the source language, which is often the case, they might pronounce the words the same or similar to the way they are pronounced in the source language. For example, English speakers adopted the word garage from French, at first with a pronunciation nearer to the French pronunciation than is now usually found. Presumably the very first speakers who used the word in English knew at least some French and heard the word used by French speakers.

Those who first use the new word might use it at first only with speakers of the source language who know the word, but at some point they come to use the word with those to whom the word was not previously known. To these speakers the word may sound 'foreign'. At this stage, when most speakers do not know the word and if they hear it think it is from another language, the word can be called a foreign word. There are many foreign words and phrases used in English such as bon vivant (French), mutatis mutandis (Latin), and Schadenfreude (German).

However, in time more speakers can become familiar with a new foreign word. The community of users can grow to the point where even people who know little or nothing of the source language understand, and even use the novel word themselves. The new word becomes conventionalized. At this point we call it a borrowing or loanword. (Not all foreign words do become loanwords; if they fall out of use before they become widespread, they do not reach the loanword stage.)

Conventionalization is a gradual process in which a word progressively permeates a larger and larger speech community. As part of its becoming more familiar to more people, with conventionalization a newly borrowed word gradually adopts sound and other characteristics of the borrowing language. In time, people in the borrowing community do not perceive the word as a loanword at all. Generally, the longer a borrowed word has been in the language, and the more frequently it is used, the more it resembles the native words of the language.

English has gone through many periods in which large numbers of words from a particular language were borrowed. These periods coincide with times of major cultural contact between English speakers and those speaking other languages. The waves of borrowing during periods of especially strong cultural contacts are not sharply delimited, and can overlap. For example, the Norse influence on English began already in the 8th century A.D. and continued strongly well after the Norman Conquest brought a large influx of Norman French to the language.

It is part of the cultural history of English speakers that they have always adopted loanwords from the languages of whatever cultures they have come in contact with. There have been few periods when borrowing became unfashionable, and there has never been a national academy in Britain, the U.S., or other English-speaking countries to attempt to restrict new loanwords, as there has been in many continental European countries.

The following list is a small sampling of the loanwords that came into English in different periods and from different languages.

I. Germanic period or Pre-Old English

The forms given in this section are the Old English ones. The original Latin source word is given in parentheses where significantly different. Some Latin words were themselves originally borrowed from Greek.

It can be deduced that these borrowings date from the time before the Angles and Saxons left the continent for England, because of very similar forms found in the other old Germanic languages (Old High German, Old Saxon, etc.). The source words are generally attested in Latin texts, in the large body of Latin writings that were preserved through the ages.

ancor   'anchor'
butere  'butter' (L   < Gr. butyros)
cealc   'chalk'
ceas    'cheese' (caseum)
cetel   'kettle'
cycene  'kitchen'
cirice  'church' (ecclesia < Gr. ecclesia)
disc    'dish'   (discus)
mil     'mile'   (milia [passuum] 'a thousand paces')
piper   'pepper' 
pund    'pound'  (pondo 'a weight')
sacc    'sack'   (saccus)
sicol   'sickle'
straet  'street' ([via] strata 'straight way' or stone-paved road)
weall   'wall'   (vallum)
win     'wine'   (vinum < Gr. oinos)

II. Old English Period (600-1100)

apostol   'apostle'     (apostolus <  Gr. apostolos)
casere    'caesar, emperor'  
ceaster   'city'        (castra 'camp')
cest      'chest'       (cista 'box')
circul    'circle'
cometa    'comet'       (cometa < Greek)
maegester 'master'      (magister)
martir    'martyr' 
paper     'paper'       (papyrus, from Gr.)
tigle     'tile'        (tegula)


brocc 'badger'
cumb  'combe, valley'

(few ordinary words, but thousands of place and river names: London, Carlisle,
Devon, Dover, Cornwall, Thames, Avon...)

III. Middle English Period (1100-1500)

Most of these first appeared in the written language in Middle English; but many were no doubt borrowed earlier, during the period of the Danelaw (9th-10th centuries).
anger, blight, by-law, cake, call, clumsy, doze, egg, fellow, gear,
get, give, hale, hit, husband, kick, kill, kilt, kindle, law, low,
lump, rag, raise, root, scathe, scorch, score, scowl, scrape, scrub,
seat, skill, skin, skirt, sky, sly, take, they, them, their, thrall,
thrust, ugly, want, window, wing

Place name suffixes:
-by, -thorpe, -gate

Law and government

attorney, bailiff, chancellor, chattel, country, court, crime,
defendent, evidence, government, jail, judge, jury, larceny, noble,
parliament, plaintiff, plea, prison, revenue, state, tax, verdict


abbot, chaplain, chapter, clergy, friar, prayer, preach, priest,
religion, sacrament, saint, sermon


baron, baroness; count, countess; duke, duchess; marquis, marquess;
prince, princess; viscount, viscountess; noble, royal

(contrast native words: king, queen, earl, lord, lady, knight, kingly,


army, artillery, battle, captain, company, corporal,
defense,enemy,marine, navy, sergeant, soldier, volunteer


beef, boil, broil, butcher, dine, fry, mutton, pork, poultry, roast,
salmon, stew, veal

Culture and luxury goods

art, bracelet, claret, clarinet, dance, diamond, fashion, fur, jewel,
oboe, painting, pendant, satin, ruby, sculpture


adventure, change, charge, chart, courage, devout, dignity, enamor,
feign, fruit, letter, literature, magic, male, female, mirror,
pilgrimage, proud, question, regard, special

Also Middle English French loans: a huge number of words in age, -ance/-ence, -ant/-ent, -ity, -ment, -tion, con-, de-, and pre-.

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a given word came from French or whether it was taken straight from Latin. Words for which this difficulty occurs are those in which there were no special sound and/or spelling changes of the sort that distinguished French from Latin.

IV. Early Modern English Period (1500-1650)

The effects of the Renaissance begin to be seriously felt in England. We see the beginnings of a huge influx of Latin and Greek words, many of them learned words imported by scholars well versed in those languages. But many are borrowings from other languages, as words from European high culture begin to make their presence felt and the first words come in from the earliest period of colonial expansion.


agile, abdomen, anatomy, area, capsule, compensate, dexterity,
discus, disc/disk, excavate, expensive, fictitious, gradual, habitual,
insane, janitor, meditate, notorious, orbit, peninsula, physician,
superintendent, ultimate, vindicate


(many of these via Latin)
anonymous, atmosphere, autograph, catastrophe, climax, comedy, critic,
data, ectasy, history, ostracize, parasite, pneumonia, skeleton,
tonic, tragedy

Greek bound morphemes: -ism, -ize

Arabic via Spanish

alcove, algebra, zenith, algorithm, almanac, azimuth, alchemy, admiral

Arabic via other Romance languages:

amber, cipher, orange, saffron, sugar, zero, coffee 

V. Present-Day English (1650-present)

About 1650 was the start of major colonial expansion, industrial/technological revolution, and significant American immigration. Words from all over the world begin to pour in during this period. Also, the tendency for specialists to borrow words from Latin and Greek, including creating new words out of Latin and Greek word elements, continues from the last period and also increases with the development of science, technology, and other fields.

Words from European languages
French continues to be the largest single source of new words outside of very specialized vocabulary domains (scientific/technical vocabulary, still dominated by classical borrowings).
High culture

ballet, bouillabaise, cabernet, cachet, chaise longue, champagne,
chic, cognac, corsage, faux pas, nom de plume, quiche, rouge, roulet,
sachet, salon, saloon, sang froid, savoir faire

War and Military
bastion, brigade, battalion, cavalry, grenade, infantry, pallisade, rebuff, 
bigot, chassis, clique, denim, garage,  grotesque, jean(s), niche, shock
French Canadian

Louisiana French (Cajun)



armada, adobe, alligator, alpaca, armadillo, barricade, bravado,
cannibal, canyon, coyote, desperado, embargo, enchilada, guitar,
marijuana, mesa, mosquito, mustang, ranch, taco, tornado, tortilla,


alto, arsenal, balcony, broccoli, cameo, casino, cupola, duo, fresco,
fugue, gazette (via French), ghetto, gondola, grotto, macaroni,
madrigal, motto, piano, opera, pantaloons, prima donna, regatta,
sequin, soprano, opera, stanza, stucco, studio, tempo, torso,
umbrella, viola, violin,

More recent words from Italian American immigrants:

cappuccino, espresso, linguini, mafioso, pasta,
pizza, ravioli, spaghetti, spumante, zabaglione, zucchini

Dutch, Flemish
Shipping, naval terms

avast, boom, bow, bowsprit, buoy, commodore, cruise, dock, freight,
keel, keelhaul, leak, pump, reef, scoop, scour, skipper, sloop,
smuggle, splice, tackle, yawl, yacht
Cloth industry
bale, cambric, duck (fabric), fuller's earth, mart, nap (of cloth),
selvage, spool, stripe
easel, etching, landscape, sketch
beleaguer, holster, freebooter, furlough, onslaught
Food and drink

booze, brandy(wine), coleslaw, cookie, cranberry, crullers, gin, hops,
stockfish, waffle

bugger (orig. French), crap, curl, dollar, scum, split (orig. nautical
term), uproar


bum, dunk, feldspar, quartz, hex, lager, knackwurst, liverwurst,
loafer, noodle, poodle, dachshund, pretzel, pinochle, pumpernickel,
sauerkraut, schnitzel, zwieback, (beer)stein, lederhosen, dirndl

20th century German loanwords:

blitzkrieg, zeppelin, strafe, U-boat, delicatessen, hamburger,
frankfurter, wiener, hausfrau, kindergarten, Oktoberfest, schuss, 
wunderkind, bundt (cake), spritz (cookies), (apple) strudel

(most are 20th century borrowings)

bagel, Chanukkah (Hanukkah), chutzpah, dreidel, kibbitzer, kosher, lox,
pastrami (orig. from Romanian), schlep, spiel, schlepp, schlemiel,
schlimazel, gefilte fish, goy, klutz, knish, matzoh, oy vey, schmuck,


fjord, maelstrom, ombudsman, ski, slalom, smorgasbord


apparatchik, borscht, czar/tsar, glasnost, icon, perestroika, vodka

Words from other parts of the world

avatar, karma, mahatma, swastika, yoga


bandanna, bangle, bungalow, chintz, cot, cummerbund, dungaree,
juggernaut, jungle, loot, maharaja, nabob, pajamas, punch (the drink),
shampoo, thug, kedgeree, jamboree


curry, mango, teak, pariah

Persian (Farsi)

check, checkmate, chess


bedouin, emir, jakir, gazelle, giraffe, harem, hashish, lute, minaret,
mosque, myrrh, salaam, sirocco, sultan, vizier, bazaar, caravan

African languages

banana (via Portuguese), banjo, boogie-woogie, chigger, goober,
gorilla, gumbo, jazz, jitterbug, jitters, juke(box), voodoo, yam,
zebra, zombie

American Indian languages

avocado, cacao, cannibal, canoe, chipmunk, chocolate, chili, hammock,
hominy, hurricane, maize, moccasin, moose, papoose, pecan, possum,
potato, skunk, squaw, succotash, squash, tamale (via Spanish), teepee,
terrapin, tobacco, toboggan, tomahawk, tomato, wigwam, woodchuck

(plus thousands of place names, including
Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatchewan and the names of more than half the
states of the U.S., including Michigan, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois)


chop suey, chow mein, dim sum, tea, ginseng, kowtow, litchee
ketchup, amok


geisha, hara kiri, judo, jujitsu, kamikaze, karaoke, kimono, samurai,
soy, sumo, sushi, tsunami

Pacific Islands

bamboo, gingham, rattan, taboo, tattoo, ukulele, boondocks


boomerang, budgerigar, didgeridoo, kangaroo (and many more in
Australian English)

© Suzanne Kemmer
Last modified Sept 2019