English is a language that boasts a flexibility to absorb vocabulary and from its neighbors, a fact that many English-speakers brag about and one that many English learners loath. Likewise, many purists, observant speakers and the Real Academia Española have rightfully complained that English seems to be invading Spanish at breakneck speed. Indeed, there may be a difference between the use of words because of laziness, pretentiousness, or a combination of both, and the slow, utilitarian evolution of a word with mysterious origins in usage. But that is a debate for another day.
While it may not be as inherently open to change as English, Spanish is a diverse language in itself, which has borrowed from many other tongues with which it has come into direct contact. Whether from the older influences of Latin, Greek, Old French or neighboring Portuguese, or from Arabic, or from indigenous languages like Nahuatl, Quechua and Taíno, Spanish has both absorbed foreign words and expressions and loaned a fair share to English.
This great reference book, from the American Heritage Dictionaries series, is a cursory list of the most popular words that you many never have suspected had a Spanish origin. Avocado comes from the Spanish, which was in turn borrowed from the language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl. To the Aztecs, ahuacatl means “testicle,” and now you will probably never look at an avocado in the same way. You´re welcome. The Spanish had a hard time pronouncing the common Nahuatl -tl suffix for plurals, so the word evolved to aguacate, and then to avocado in English (for the same pronunciation reasons). This process of language change—simplification or modification of pronunciation to adjust to the native tongue—is very common. Tomato comes from the Nahuatl as well, and followed the same path from Nahuatl to English: tomatl > tomate > tomato, and it comes to us through hundreds of years of colonialism, exploration, violence and cultural melding.
There are many words that present day residents of the southwest of the United States—Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico—already know and use in everyday language that are obvious derivations, or simple transfers, from Spanish. Examples include: adobe, alfalfa (which is a derivation of the Arabic fasfasa), caldera, canyon, caramel, chili, cigar, cilantro, cockroach (which has a fascinating history of folk etymology, in which the changes of pronunciation were based on mistaken theories of its definition), marijuana, piñata, salsa and sombrero. But most mistakenly attribute these words solely to exposure to Mexican culture; the majority of words derived from Spanish in fact hold longer, more complex histories.
The word embargo comes directly from the Spanish, which literally translates to “seizure of goods.” During the late 1500s, Spain and England grew increasingly hostile to each other, particularly at sea, and Queen Elizabeth often seized gold and valuables from Spanish Armada ships. Through the breakdown in trade between the countries, the word embargo became increasingly used in the language of the English, particularly in maritime vernacular.
Merino comes from a special breed of sheep, once treasured and constrained exclusively to Spain. The fine wool from the merino sheep was once the engine that drove the Spanish economy, particularly leading up the Age of Discovery. Nowadays, merino refers to any product made of high-quality wool.
Potato comes from the Spanish, too, and it typifies a common quirk in English borrowings from Spanish. Potato comes to us through a complex history of Quechua (the language of the Incans), Spanish and English, and involves influences from patata, batata, boniato and papa. English speakers often replace a final a with an o when they borrow words from the Spanish.
Other strong words like stampede, renegade, patio, mesa, hurricane and guitar also come from the Spanish, and each word has its own interesting story.
Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries is a small, but essential reference for those interested in this particular etymology of English.
Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries
Houghton Mifflin Company