Words, Words, Words Part 2: The Natives

Last time we looked at unusual words and their origins. This time, I’m taking a look at words that our Native American people have given us in English, through their own language, culture, and traditions.

We have words for food from the people who first discovered them, foods like corn, squash, pumpkins, peanuts, tomatoes, even avocados and berries. We have items like hammocks to thank for our forebears, too. Here are several English words we’ve adapted from indigenous language:

RACCOON: These masked animals were originally called arahkunem, which translates to mean “he scratches with the hands” in the Powhatan language used by Virginia indigenous peoples. Difficult for English speakers to pronounce, in 1608 Captain John Smith included it on a listing of Powhatan words as “raugroughcum” which doesn’t sound much easier to my ears! The shortening and spelling as “raccoon” is found to have evolved by the late 17th century.

CHOCOLATE: We’ve only had an English name for this sweet treat since heading back to the 1600s. It comes from the native Nahuatl language spoken in Central Mexico for centuries before that, where it was originally only prepared as a drink the Nahuatl called “cacao water” as cacahuatl. 

TOBOGGAN: These flat-bottomed sleds were made in their original form by French Canadians as a drag made from animal skins they called thapaken. Credited to the Maliseet or Mi’kmaq language, it evolved into the long, flat-bottomed sled many of us have used for a ride down a snowy hill.

KAYAK: We have the Inuits to that for the work “kayak” from the part of the world in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The double-paddled narrow boats were originally called qayaq.

BAYOU: From the American South we find these marshy lakes with sow-moving streams and creeks, a unique kind of wetland area filled with cypress and Spanish moss. It was the Choctaw term bayuk meaning small stream, that Louisiana French called bayouque until it was shortened to the term we use how as bayou.

And lastly, I’ll return to my Long Island roots, where the Shinnecock Indians there used the Algonquian language language of the Narragansett people who originated in Rhode Island. Their native word for this creature,  also called a groundhog, was wuchak. I’m betting he has no idea we’ve built up a folklore about his weather-predicting abilities!

In each of these words, it’s easy to see the evaluation from the root word to the one we use in our language in modern times.



MIss Demeanors


Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. Her story “Quiche Alain” appears in the Anthony-winning Malice Domestic Anthology, Murder Most Edible.  Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, she’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Triangle SinC, Mavens of Mayhem SinC, the NC Writers Network, and the International Crime Writers Association.


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