English Words That Come From Spanish

In this excerpt from his book Word Workout, Charles Harrington Elster gives examples of English words that come from Spanish.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read


The olla podrida of English is heavily spiced with Spanish. From California to Texas to Florida—all Spanish names—English is a Spanish omelet. People live in cities and towns with Spanish names like San Antonio, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. They drive on streets with Spanish names and live in Spanish-style houses in developments with (often mangled) Spanish names. They admire Hispanic flora and enjoy Hispanic food. Spanish surrounds them and, whether they realize it or not, they speak it every day.

In the 16th century, when Spain was exploring and conquering the New World, Spanish exerted its earliest influence upon English. By 1600, English had acquired alligator, anchovy, banana, cannibal, cocoa, hurricane, mosquito, potato, sassafras, sherry, sombrero, and tobacco. By 1700, English had adopted cargo, barricade, escapade, siesta, matador, toreador, tomato, chocolate, vanilla, and cockroach. By 1750, English had gained the geological term mesa, and by 1780, the word stevedore (from estibador, one who packs or loads cargo), which preceded longshoreman, its Anglo-Saxon equivalent, by more than twenty years. By 1850, English had appropriated the now-familiar canyon, bonanza, loco, and vigilante.

As 19th-century American pioneers pushed west into territory long dominated by Spain and later Mexico, the idiom of the cowboy grew out of the vernacular of his counterpart, the vaquero (vuh-KAIR-oh). From the vaqueros the cowboys adopted the words ranch, rodeo, lasso and lariat, chaps, poncho, serape, stampede, desperado, and buckaroo, an anglicization of vaquero.

The buckaroos learned new names for creatures: burro for a donkey, pinto for a piebald horse, cinch for a bedbug, and coyote for a wild dog. They ate frijoles, chiles, tamales, and enchiladas. And if a buckaroo drank too much mescal or tequila, he might wind up in the calaboose or hoosegow—the jail. Other borrowings from the heydey of the Old West include hacienda, patio, arroyo, hombre, amigo, and pronto.

“The Spanish contributions to the American vocabulary are far more numerous than those of any other Continental language,” observes H.L. Mencken in The American Language. Think about that next time you’re sitting on the patio of your hacienda sipping sherry, taking a siesta, eating some vanilla ice cream with sliced bananas, or gazing at a stampede of mosquitoes in the canyon.

That was an excerpt from Word Workout by Charles Harrington Elster, reprinted here with permission from St. Martin’s Griffin. (AmazonBarnes & NobleIndiebound

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.