Native American Words in English

English is a mishmash of words from all over the world with plenty of regional variations. American English is, of course, no different and you’ll find an endless array of Native American words peppered throughout people’s speech in everything from place names to indigenous foods and animals.

Sadly, many of the  languages indigenous to the Americas have been lost, or are on the decline. Below, you’ll find a sampling of words that survive. 

Happy Thanksgiving

Before you read: 

• What words do you know that come from indigenous languages?
• How many tribes do you know the names of?  

Animals

Plenty of animals are native to the Americas. Some of the most popular are chipmunk (Ojibwa), opossum, woodchuck and raccoon (Algonquin), husky (Inuit), caribou (Micmac), moose and skunk (Abnaki), condor (Quechua), iguana (Arawak), cougar and Jaguar (Guarani)

Foods

I love American food, but we do a very bad job of advertising the richness of American cuisine to the world. If you think it’s just McDonald’s, then you need to try some buttered squash (Narragansett), or some guacamole made with avocados (Nahuatl). I’m sure you’ve tried chocolate, but have you tried it with chili (Nahuatlpeppers like the Aztecs used to make? Honestly, my mother’s brownies with chili peppers are amazing. What about persimmons (Algonquin), or anything at all made with tomato (Nahuatl)? If you are health conscious, perhaps some nice quinoa (Quechua).

Everyday items

During the holidays, you and your family might decide to have a barbecue (Arawak), or relax in a hammock (Arawak) never knowing where those words came from. Or if you like the outdoors, perhaps a trip in a canoe (Arawak) or a kayak (Inuit). Have you ever seen parents carrying their children in a papoose (Algonquian)?

This is just a fraction of the thousands of beautiful words which come from Native American languages. Did any of these words surprise you? Try talking about them and Native American tribes in your next language class.

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