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.
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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