Immigrant Contributions to American English


As immigrants arrive in the United States, they bring with them their language as well as their culture. Just as immigrants and their cultures have become part of the fabric of this country, so have some words from their languages, so much so, that Americans may not even realize that they have foreign origins. Today we’re celebrating this aspect of American English by highlighting some of our favorite loanwords brought into the language by immigrant communities:

zucchini: The American English version of courgette (zucchini in British English, for those who may not know) was given to us by the Italian-American immigrants who also cultivated these little pumpkins (the literal translation of zucchini in Italian) and brought them to America in a wave of immigration in the early 20th century.

cookie:  The word cookie derives from the Dutch word koekje or more precisely its dialect variant koekie, which means little cake, and was brought to America with the Dutch who settled the mid-Atlantic in the 1600s. This word has subsequently been borrowed into other languages such as French (un cookie, with stress on the second syllable) primarily to refer to the type of cookie that is round and has chocolate chips or the like in it.

(For more Dutch contributions to the English language and American culture, check out our post titled From Yankees to Coney Island: Dutch roots in America.)

klutz: This word was brought to America in the mid-20th century with Yiddish-speaking immigrants, like so many other words (think schlep, spiel, schmuck, and of course, bagel). The Yiddish meaning is lump, block, which makes sense since a block or a lump of a person is anything but graceful, i.e. a klutz.

bodega: This word is mostly used in New York City to mean a convenience store or corner store. It was borrowed from Spanish-speaking immigrant communities in the city. Its original meaning in Spanish was (and continues to be for many) a wine cellar or basement, but in certain parts of Latin America and Mexico it came to mean a small grocery store.

Runners Up: We also have immigration (and other language contact with our neighbors to the south) to thank for the following:

Italian: espresso, cappuccino, linguini, pasta

Dutch: Yankee, cranberry, hops, booze, dollar

German: bundt cake, spritz, delicatessen

Chinese: dim sum, litchee, chow mein

Spanish: guacamole, jalapeño, Angeleno (a person from Los Angeles), chaps, shack, tortilla, chile (chili),  just about every place name in the state of California (Okay, not all, but so many!)

Want to learn some of the many languages spoken by American immigrants? Start here.