Spanish language influence over English began earlier than we think.. and continues

Spanish - English

Antonio de Nebrija. (

English language borrowings from Spanish began earlier than people might think, probably as soon as Spain became a vast Empire and its weight in the world awed European nations. Perhaps it all started in 1492 with the discovery of America and Antonio de Nebrija’s Spanish Grammar (Gramática castellana), the first in a vulgar language.

Dr. John Simpson, Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the most influential lexicographer in English, favored me with a prologue for my “The New Dictionary of Current Sayings and Proverbs, English and Spanish” where he says: “My introduction to Spanish proverbs occurred when I was working on the letter A for the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. The earliest piece of evidence I had for the proverb. It takes all sorts to make a world come from Thomas Shelton’s seventeenth-century English translation of Don Quixote: ‘In the world there must be of all sorts.’ I think the information has stuck with me all these years because I wasn’t expecting the first reference to an English proverb to come from a Spanish source. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting this: After all, English (at least since the Norman Conquest) shares much of its … heritage with the countries of continental Europe.”

English borrowing from Spanish

Dr. Simpson was not expecting a source coming from the Spanish language, just as the rest of us, who think that English borrowed a few words from Castilian, like sombrero, burro, potato and tomato, rodeo, armadillo. The borrowings began early, as Professor Simpson points out, and were plentiful.

Take sherry, for example, which the dictionary defines as a fortified Spanish wine, from Jerez, formerly Xerez. Its first documented use in English is in 1584, before the Pilgrims landed in America. And speaking of wines, I am reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s ghastly story “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), where Fortunato is lured to his death because of Spanish wine from Montilla in Andalusia. The word was first imported and used in 1825.

In 1582 we find evidence of the use in English of the word mestizo, a person of mixed blood, a blend of European and Indian, from late Latin mixticius. Mulatto came into the language, also from Spanish, in 1590, the offspring of a European and black African. Both words are tale-telling examples of the open attitudes prevalent centuries ago. Negro was borrowed from Spanish in the 1550s, from the Latin nigrum. Harper’s Weekly, June 2, 1906, interviewed Professor Booker T. Washington: “…being politely interrogated … as to whether negroes ought to be called ‘negroes’ or ‘members of the colored race’ has replied that it has long been his own practice to write and speak of members of his race as negroes, and when using the term ‘negro’ as a race designation to employ the capital ‘N.’” Since the 1960s the word Negro, referring to Blacks, has lost favor with the public.

In 1845 the term aficionado, an amateur, someone fond of something, was attested in a document, from the Spanish verb aficionar, a verb that does not appear in Spanish until 1550. We can talk of movie aficionados, aficionados of bullfighting and more. While we are with aficionados, we might as well mention the toreador, a word that is documented in English in the 1610s. Yes, that early.

Cafeteria entered English in 1839, employing the Spanish suffix –iría, a place where things are done or sold (camisería, mueblería, zapatería). In 1913, in Montana, a company copyrighted the term groceteria, a place where groceries were sold. This might show that the much reviled Spanglish is nothing new. Bodegas are common in New York, and surfaced there in 1848.

Believe it or not, the word garbanzo is recorded in the Webster Dictionary, as chickpea, from Spanish, and was first used in 1759 when it became an English word. The origin of the Spanish word is unknown. Enchiladas were known in American English since 1887, and paella since 1892. Not exactly newcomers to English.

A young Spanish lady made its official appearance in English in 1823 as señorita.

The 1560s saw the incorporation of the famous siesta, from the Latin sexta-hora, noon; however, fiesta had to wait until 1844 to enter the language and be adopted. English speakers always associate Hispanics with these two words.

Sangria (1960), salsa (1975), merengue (1936), rumba (1919), all belong to the XX century.

Maize, hurricane, embargo, cacique, cabana, armada, caballero, cargo, chile con carne, cassava, barricade, piñata, cacao, cannibal, piñon… and so many more… but, alas, there is no more space left to show and prove that the English language foresaw the importance of Spanish and started to borrow words early, just in case. And here we are, for better or for worse, like it or not.

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