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Best of: Portuguese words in English!

Caipirinha, Capoeira, Samba – everyone knows a few words that English has adopted from Portuguese. But there is a notably extensive sub-strata of words which English owes to Portuguese.

In the days of their vast maritime empire, the Portuguese propagated many new words – typically adapted from newly-discovered cultures – to describe some of the weird stuff their sailors came across. Many of these became so widespread and deeply embedded in other languages that their origins were lost. I for one can think of no more typically British foodstuff than marmalade, but it turns out that its name came from the Portuguese word for quince jelly.

Here are some more!

Albatross
from Portuguese alcatraz, meaning pelican, sometime in the Sixteenth Century. Etymology dot com tells us that this word may have been derived from the Arabic al-ghattas or sea eagle. Alternatively, it came from alcatruz, the bucket of a water wheel, in reference to the pelican’s pouch (“cf. Arabic saqqa, pelican, lit. water carrier“). Either way, the spelling was influenced by Latin albus, white. The name was extended by English sailors to refer to the larger sea-bird.

Banana
Borrowed by either the Spanish or Portuguese from a West African language, possibly Wolof, in the 1590s.

Cashew
This version of the word appeared in 1704 from the French acajou, which itself came from the older Portuguese acajú. This in turn was derived from Tupi acajuba, the tree that produces the nut.

Commando
A rather convoluted etymology – this word first came into widespread use in the Boer war meaning ‘a troop under a commander’. The older Portuguese word, meaning roughly the same thing, is first documented during the Napoleonic wars. It’s modern meaning (specialised crack troops) is first attested in the writings of Winston Churchill, who may have picked it up in South Africa.

Fetish
Fatisso, from feitiço – charm, sorcery. Probably coined in the 1610s by Portuguese sailors and traders as a name for charms and talismans worshipped by the inhabitants of the Guinea coast of Africa. Cf. Spanish hechizo.

Marmalade
Late 15c., from Medieval French marmelade, from Portuguese marmelada “quince jelly, marmalade,” from marmelo – quince, by dissimilation from Latin melimelum “sweet apple,” originally “fruit of an apple tree grafted onto quince,” from Gk. melimelon, from meli “honey” + melon “apple.” Extended 17c. to “preserve made from citrus fruit.”. So that explains that!

Palanquin
“a covered litter,” 1580s, from Portuguese palanquim (early 16c.), from Malay and Javanese palangki, ultimately from Sanskrit. Some have noted the “curious coincidence” of the Spanish palanca, from Latin phalanga “pole to carry a burden.”

Palaver
Lovely word this, it is now falling into disuse but was once popular in the UK (or London, at least) to mean a lot of noise, most of it inconsequential and distracting. It’s origin is in 1733, when it meant “talk, conference, discussion”. Sailors’ slang, from the Portuguese palavra “word, speech, talk.” It was used by Portuguese traders to mean “negotiating with the natives” in West Africa.

Tank
1610s, “pool or lake for irrigation or drinking water,” a word originally exported by the Portuguese from India, ultimately from Gujarati tankh “cistern, underground reservoir for water,” Marathi tanken, or tanka “reservoir of water, tank.” Perhaps from Sanskrit tadaga-m “pond, lake pool,” and reinforced in later sense of “large artificial container for liquid” (1690) by Port. tanque “reservoir,” from estancar “hold back a current of water,” from Vulgar Latin. But others say the Port. word is the source of the Indian ones. The modern use of ‘tank’ to mean miltiary hardware stems from its use as a WWII codeword, itself chosen, perhaps, because tanks look a bit like tanks.

Vindaloo
Konkani (Indic language of western India) – vindalu, from Portuguese vin d’alho, a dish made from wine and garlic. Who knew?

And whilst we’re on the subject, there is a (slightly contentious) theory that Bombay takes its name from the Portuguese for ‘good bay’: bom bahia.

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