The Grammarphobia Blog

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Q: On a recent radio appearance, you discussed word borrowings, which reminded me of an incident some years ago. I was in Paraguay when General Alfredo Stroessner was in power. He was known as “El Líder” and I remarked to a Paraguayan friend that the word “líder” was borrowed from English. “Oh, no!” he said. “It’s a good Spanish word.”

A: The Spanish noun líder is indeed a good Spanish word and can be found in any Spanish dictionary. But you’re right – it was borrowed from the English “leader,” which has its roots in the Old English verb laedan (to lead), which was first recorded in the ninth century.

If you’re a language, borrowing is a common and perfectly legitimate way to build your vocabulary!

Here are some other Spanish borrowings from English:

comité: from “committee,” which was adapted into English from Anglo-French.

mitin: from “meeting,” which came from Old English.

bicicleta: from “bicycle,” coined in English in the 19th century.

reportero: from “reporter,” a 14th-century English word (it didn’t mean a journalist, though, until the 18th century).

suéter: from “sweater,” which has roots in Old English.

champú: from “shampoo,” which English probably adapted from Hindi.

fútbol, gol, tenis, golf: from English sports terms.

túnel, tren: from “tunnel” and “train,” both of which entered English, with different meanings and spellings, from Old French.

Perhaps the most interesting Spanish borrowing of all is guerra (war), which originally came from the Old High German werra (meaning confusion, discord, or strife). The word was wyrre or werre in late Old English.

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and medieval Latin all got guerra – and French got guerre – from this old Teutonic source. The romance languages did this, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, because the Latin word for war (bellum) was too similar to the adjective for beautiful (bello).

Of course this borrowing business goes both ways. English has borrowed lots of words from Spanish, such as “barbecue,“ “chocolate,” “embargo,” “guitar,” “lasso,” “patio,” “ranch,” “stampede,” “tornado,” “vanilla,” and many, many more.

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