These Words Originated From Native American Languages

As we all know, before Christopher Columbus landed on the Americas in 1492 the Native Americans had been living with the lush landscape for hundreds of thousands of years. Each tribe had its own traditions, religion, and languages.

Although many Native languages have gone extinct, there are still 150 languages spoken today. When more settlers came to North America, French and English speakers began synthesizing words from Native American languages into their own.

There are many words used today that owe their creation to the beautiful mixture of language. Many US states, indigenous animals, and foods are named using Native American languages.

So, what’s left to do but take a look at everyday words that come from Native languages?!


Bayous are dotted all across the southern United States. The best known are in Louisiana, home of myths and legends.

A bayou is “a marshy part of a river, lake, or stream in low-lying areas.” The bayous hold diverse wildlife like gators, herons, and raccoons.

The word bayou originates from the Choctaw bayuk, which means “creek.” These Native American people originally occupied land across the Southeastern United States and had alliances with Europeans like the French and Spanish. It’s during this intersection of language that bayuk synthesized into the word we know now: bayou.


With their burglar masks and mischievous nature, raccoons are commonly found rifling through trash looking for leftovers (when they’re not in the bayou, that is). But this animal’s name also comes from a Native American tribe.

People belonging to the Algonquin tribe that lived in the area surrounding Virginia spoke Powhatan. The language is extinct now, and while not many words were recorded, linguists have deduced that arahkun was the word that became our raccoon.


For us, kayaking may be a fun activity to do in the summer, or a dangerous sport done in a treacherous whitewater river, but the Inuit people of Canada and Alaska use the kayak for hunting.

Inuktitut, the written and oral language of the Inuit, phonetically spells kayak as qajaq. They used many different kinds of kayaks, including the cigar-shaped vessel most commonly seen. Some had triple cockpits, and some were completely open. The first kayaks were originally made of animal skin!


Who doesn’t love the savory smell of smoke and the salty zing of spices that come with cooking up a barbecue? The barbecue goes past being just a way to cook and is an event where people gather to celebrate with tasty food.

Down in the Caribbean, the Taíno people sure knew what they were doing when they hung up meat and vegetables above a fire and called it barbakoa. This translates to “framework of sticks.” When the Spanish encountered the Taíno in the 1650s, they took the method of cooking onward to mainland America and barbecue took off.


Squash, otherwise known as gourds, are the hard vegetables enjoyed in the fall. They encompass varieties like butternut squash, pumpkin squash, and acorn squash. But, the original meaning of the squash is puzzling.

To be “eaten raw or uncooked” is how the Narragansett people of Rhode Island described the askutasquash. The Pilgrims had a different way of enjoying their gourds and prepared them in various ways. They were popularly baked, pureed, and simmered with other local vegetables. Which is better … that question is still up for debate.


The hearty pecan, on the other hand, is a nut that can definitely be eaten raw or uncooked. It’s especially delicious baked into a pecan pie bursting with sweetness. Pecans were eaten after the first Thanksgiving Day feast alongside a fire.

This is another word that comes from the Algonquian language, specifically the word pakani (or pakan depending on the region). Pakani, meaning “hard nut,” was used by a group of tribes known as the Illinois Confederation. The French incorporated this word into their own language as pacane, and English borrowed it from there.


A total of 26 states can directly trace their names to the Native American tribes that lived there, and Mississippi is one of them. The Mississippi River weaves through 10 states, all the way from the northern United States to the basin in Louisiana.

The Ojibwe people that lived where the river begins in Minnesota called it the misiziibi for “great river.” The Ojibwe people spoke the Ojibwe language, a branch of the Algonquian group of languages.


With presidential elections being highly televised, more Americans are aware of the word caucus.caucus, in US politics, is “a meeting of party leaders meant to select leaders or strategize for elections.” Americans encounter this word in relation to meetings held across the country that determine who will be the party nominee in an election.Caucus possibly comes from the Algonquin word caucauasu  for “counselor” or “advisor.” The first written use of the word was in the Boston Gazette in 1760. Many theorize that the origin of the political usage is from the Caucus Club of Boston, a group of local leaders who had tons of political sway in the 1700s.


This one may not be a huge surprise, even though moccasins are typically found in slipper form now, complete with fur on the inside to keep your feet warm. However, the moccasin is a historical to Native American culture.

Different tribes called the mocassin different words. For example: The Powhatan word is makasin. The Mi’kmaq called it a mksin. In Ojibwe, it’s a makizin.

A traditional Native American moccasin is made of leather formed into a U shape around the foot. They can have a hard of soft sole, and can be decorated with embroidery. Designs vary from tribe to tribe.


Sufferin’ succotash! This is what Sylvester the cat and Daffy Duck would say when they found themselves frustrated or exasperated. But what even is succotash?

Well, it’s a dish with sweet corn as the star ingredient. It usually includes some form of shell beans, okra, or other vegetables. Yum.

The dish is primarily found in New England, where the Narragansett people live. Sohquttahhash is their word for broken corn kernels.

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