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16 Spanish Words In English That Show The Impact Of Hispanic Cultures

We’re taking a cue from the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place every year from September 15 to October 15, to look at the many ways Spanish has impacted the English language.

It’s not surprising that English has a lot of Spanish in it: Hispanic people are the largest ethnic minority in the US. And, in 1848, Mexico was compelled to cede approximately 50% of its original territory to the US—much of which is now the Southwest—following the Mexican American War. Many English terms originated from Spanish (silostampederanch), and others are Spanish words that have been integrated into the language (salsasiesta). Some of these words, such as coyote and guacamole, have deeper roots in Indigenous languages (stay posted: we’ll cover these in a later piece).

These words remain evergreen and are used 365 days year-round. Ready to dive in? ¡Vámonos! The recognition of Hispanic cultures goes on!

tornado

If you’re from the Midwest, you may be all too familiar with this force of nature. A tornado is a violently spinning column of air recognized by its iconic “long, funnel-shaped cloud extending toward the ground and made visible by condensation and debris.” While tornados appear all over the world, they’re most notoriously sighted in the US’ eponymous Tornado Alley.

Tornado was first recorded in English around 1550–60, emerging from the Spanish word tronada, or “thunderstorm.” The torna in tornado is also derived from the Spanish verb tornar (“to turn or to twist”), which if you’re unlucky enough to be near a tornado, you’ll see the winds twisting into its vortex.

 

  • When the tornado’s winds died down, the girl stepped outside the house to find she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.”

Get caught up in the whirlwind of language around tornados, cyclones, hurricanes, and more.

alligator

This wide-snouted reptile is ubiquitous throughout the swamps and marshlands in the US and parts of Mexico. Its name, alligator, is derived from the original Spanish of el lagarto, or “the lizard.” And seeing how alligators can grow up to 15 feet, you’re sure to know exactly which lizard people mean when they say el lagarto!

Emerging during the Spanish invasion of the Americas, the word alligator was first recorded around 1560-70. Bilingual bonus: the US state known for its alligators, Florida, derives its name from one Spanish name for Palm Sunday, Pascua florida. The Spanish word florida also means “florid,” or having a lot of flowers.

 

  • With its massive jaws, the alligator has one of the strongest bites of any creature on the planet.

Do you know the difference between an alligator and crocodile?

buckaroo

Considering that the Southwestern states were part of Mexico until 1848, it’s not surprising that terms associated with the Old West hold a Spanish origin. And among one of the most iconic images of the 19th-century West is the cowboy, sometimes called a buckaroo, or in Spanish, vaquero. With the word vaca (“cow”) at its root, vaquero is literally “cowboy.”

But how did we go from vaquero to buckaroo? In Spanish, the V and B sound alike (confusing many Spanish learners), so the V in vaquero is softer and sounds like “baquero.” This eventually evolved into buckaroo.

While vaqueros had been herding cattle in the Americas since the 1500s, buckaroo is recorded as entering English-language use around 1820-30 as more white Americans migrated westward and into Mexican ranching territories.

 

  • After several hours, the buckaroo eventually quelled the wild horse.

lasso

And what’s a buckaroo without a lasso handy? This long rope or line of hide is characterized by the loop at the end of it in order to rope cattle or other livestock. In English, this noun is also used as a verb, to lasso something is to “catch something,” particularly as you would with a lasso.

Recorded in about 1760, lasso comes from the Spanish lazo, or “ribbon.”

 

  • To keep the steer from getting away, we lassoed it by the horns.

vamoose

Need to go quickly or in a hurry? Chances are you’ve been told at some point or another to “vamoose”! Typically used in the imperative, vamoose was derived from the Spanish command, “Vamos,” or “let’s go,” around 1830-1840.

Strange as it sounds, vamoose has nothing to do with the antlered moose.

 

  • Once he saw the tornado on the horizon, the buckaroo told his crew, “Vamoose!

ranch

We mean the place, not the salad dressing! A ranch is generally defined as “an establishment maintained for raising livestock under range conditions.” Like other 19th-century terms connected to the Southwest, ranch holds a Spanish root word, rancho. It’s also fairly easy to see how rancho lost an O somewhere along the way and became the shortened English ranch.

While ranch was first documented among US English-speakers around the early 1800s, its predecessor rancho comes from the verb rancharse, meaning “to lodge” or “to eat together,” implied to be at a large table. Considering that ranches are often places where many vaqueros would lodge or stay over with others, typically on a seasonal basis, we can see the connection from verb to noun.

 

  • The Saavedra family ranch mostly raises free-range chickens, but they keep a few cows, too.

stampede

Whether it’s a herd of wild horses or fans rushing to the latest boy band concert, we all know that when there’s a stampede coming, you move! Defined as “a sudden, frenzied rush or headlong flight of a herd of frightened animals, especially cattle or horses,” the word stampede is derived from the Spanish verb estampar, or “to stamp.” Basically, that’s the action the feet (or hooves) are making as they pound into the ground!

Estampar ultimately gave way to the noun estampida, which became stampede in English. In line with many terms of the Southwest, stampede entered English-speakers’ usage around 1815-25.

 

  • The fallen lion was no match for the stampede of wildebeest.

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chaps

While the Spanish predecessor for this word has lost a few letters over the years, the meaning is essentially still the same. Originally called chaparajos, chaps are “a pair of joined leather leggings, often widely flared, worn over trousers, especially by cowboys, as protection against burs, rope burns, and the like while on horseback.”

Chaps’ origin word, chaparajos, is likely a compound word. Combining chaparral (the arid, dusty biome common to the Southwest) with aparejos (Spanish for “gear”), this was the “chaparral apparel” that would protect you from the chaparral’s rough tumbleweed, spiky cactus, and other brush.

 

  • After riding through thick underbrush for the past couple hours, Esteban wished he had worn chaps.

silo

Maybe you’ve seen one of these large, cylindrical grain repositories on a farm or, if you’re part of corporate America, maybe you work in one. A silo is a structure that stores fodder, forage, grain, or green feeds. In general, it’s used to refer to how something (or someone) is separated from everything else.

Silo was first recorded in 1825–35, from the Spanish word referring to the “place for storing grain, hay, etc.” Originally, silos referred to a structure as being subterranean.

 

  • Exchange of knowledge is important, so even experts can’t be expected to work in the silo of their department.

armadillo

With its plated, protective covering, the root word of this little critter common to the Americas should be pretty obvious. If you can hear the word armor in armadillo, you’re right on track! Coined sometime around the late 1500s, armadillo comes from the Spanish adjective armado, or “armed,” and the diminutive suffix -illo. Combined, these create the word armadillo, or “little armored one.”

Fun fact: Before the arrival of the Spanish, Nahuatl-speaking peoples referred to armadillos as āyōtōchtli, which means “turtle-rabbit.” Between the long ears and the shell, we can definitely see the resemblance!

 

  • By rolling up into a ball, the armadillo’s tough exterior protected it from the hungry predator.

bodega

Most commonly seen throughout the East Coast, bodegas are “small, independent or family-owned grocery stores.” They’re often found in big cities and typically serve Latino communities, especially those with roots in the Caribbean (e.g. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans). The word bodega literally means a “wine cellar, wine shop,” from the Latin apothēca (“storehouse”). The words apothecary and boutique are also related to this Latin root!

What happens if you’re in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or somewhere else in the Southwest? Bodegas in these regions are typically referred to as mercados by their predominantly Mexican-American clientele. Take a closer look mercado and say it slowly: can you see how it’s related to the word market itself?

 

  • Flora stepped into the bodega to quickly restock on fresh plantains, milk, and this week’s lottery ticket.

mosquito

In Spanish, the -ito ending is common to denote that something is small or diminutive. So you’ll get words like carrito (little car or cart), perrito (little dog or a puppy), or mijito (a Latin American endearment for one’s own child). While there’s not anything endearing or cute about a fly, mosquito is a tinier version of mosca, your average housefly. Mosquito was recorded in English around 1575–85.

 

  • As much of a nuisance as they are, mosquitos are also excellent pollinators, helping more plants reproduce and produce fruit.

sierra

For some, the word sierra conjures images of a desert or a popular soft drink. The geography it technically refers to is “a chain of hills or mountains, the peaks of which suggest the teeth of a saw.” That image of a saw is important since that’s the meaning of its Latin root word, serra, which is also the source of the English word serrated.

Sierra is recorded as first appearing in use between 1590–1610.

 

  • After days of navigating the sierra’s rugged terrain, we finally made it to a local town.

alpaca

Not to be confused with its more aggressive cousin, the llama, alpacas were (and still are) the primary livestock of many people in South America, especially in Peru and Ecuador. A domesticated animal, alpaca are known for their long, soft fleece that can be used to make a number of products from sweaters and shawls to blankets and socks.

Alpaca is derived from the native Aymara word (from the region in Peru and Bolivia near Lake Titicaca), allpaqa.

 

  • Some of the comfiest jackets and blankets are spun from alpaca fleece!

savvy

If you’re “in the know” or “hip to the rules,” then chances are the word savvy also applies to you, too. Meaning to be “experienced, knowledgeable, well-informed, or shrewd,” savvy is most frequently used as an adjective, typically linked with another word (e.g. tech-savvy). Savvy can also be a noun, as in a real estate agent who has a lot of savvy on the direction the housing market is going.

As previously mentioned, the B and V sounds in Spanish can be interchangeable. So the Spanish word sabe (“she/he/it knows”) eventually morphed into savvy by about 1775-85—just in time for certain pirates in the Caribbean to make it their catchphrase.

 

  • If you’re savvy to the unwritten rules of fashion, you’d know that one’s shoes should always match their belt.

maize

Whether creamed, on the cob, or popped and buttered, most people are familiar with maize in one of its various incarnations or another—it’s corn! By extension, maize can also refer to “a pale yellow resembling the color of corn.”

While the Spanish word maíz is documented in English about 1545–55, its roots run deeper. Taíno people, the indigenous population of modern-day islands such as Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, called this crop mahís before the term was acquired into Spanish. Corn, alongside squash and beans, is considered one of the life-sustaining, sacred foods (the “Three Sisters”) in the Americas.

 

  • Rosario twirled in her dress, which was a golden maize that complemented the fall colors of her home’s interior.

 

⚡️Take the quiz!

Ready to take your Spanish language knowledge to the next level? Then head over to our quiz to see how many of these words you’ve lassoed and rounded up into your vocabulary. Need one more review before you earn the title of “word buckaroo”? Try our word list, where you can create flashcards and more!

You'll be singing a fresh tune with these Spanish words found in the musical "In The Heights."

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