Celebrating Bantu & Kimbundu
Woody Guthrie once said of another songwriter, “Sure, he stole from me, but Hell, I steal from everybody.” The English language appears to have a similar attitude when it comes to word acquisition.
One of the lesser-acknowledged languages from which English has stolen is Bantu, a family of languages spoken across much of southern Africa. Here are a few words that started out in one of the Bantu languages (including Kimbundu, mostly spoken around Angola). And darned if they didn’t make their way into Modern English.
Chimpanzee - appeared in English in 1738 from the Bantu word for a gregarious, anthropoid, intelligent ape, known in biological circles as pan troglodytes.
Gumbo - a vegetable and seafood soup thickened with okra. The word gumbo arrived in English in 1805 through Louisiana French from the Bantu word ngombo, which means okra.
Tote appeared in English in the 1800s from the Kimbundu word tuta, meaning both a load & to carry.
Marimba came to English in 1704 from the Bantu word for an indigenous xylophone-like instrument.
Goober arrived in English in 1833 from the Bantu, Kimbundu, or Kikonga word nguba, meaning peanut, a leguminous plant.
Zombie arrived in English in 1781 from the Kimbundu word nzambi, originally meaning god, then picking up the meaning re-animated corpse in the world of voodoo.
Tsetse came to English in 1849 through South African Dutch from the Bantu word for fly — all species in the genus glossinidae, Tsetse is also excellent evidence that the Bantu indulge in onomatopoeia.
Banjo appeared in English in 1764 from the Bantu word mbanza, which referred to an indigenous African instrument not terribly unlike the modern banjo.
I’m curious. Had you ever wondered about the origins of any of the words above? Did you already know some of them were of African origin?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
4/13/2023 10:14:15 am
These are all such fun words! I had no idea they came from Bantu. Even the ubiquitous word "tote". I'll think of that every time I hear NPR offering a tote bag in exchange for a donation.
4/13/2023 02:56:17 pm
I'm with you, Anne. It's astounding how many places we've stolen from to come up with this wacky language of ours.
4/17/2023 03:18:58 am
I knew about gumbo, since I grew up from teens onward in the Louisiana region, and I'm not too surprised by zombie. I knew also that goobers were peanuts, but I had no idea where the name came from.
4/17/2023 07:05:38 pm
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I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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