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A Bounty of November Vocabulary: Vocabulary for Native American Heritage Month

Here are 15 common English words whose roots come from indigenous languages of the Americas. The fate of the people who spoke these languages varies greatly, from tribes lost to history (that we only know about through records of other tribes) to the Guarani, whose language at last count had over 4 million speakers in Paraguay. All of these peoples, whatever their current status, have contributed their ideas and their perspectives through the English words below. Many of these terms have to do with animals and foods to be found in nature, but the Algonquian roots of "tuxedo" may come as a surprise! Read on below for tales of many more English words from indigenous sources.
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  1. ipecac
    a medicinal drug used to evoke vomiting
    After trying everything else, he reluctantly agrees to exposure therapy: Under a doctor’s supervision he will take ipecac, which induces vomiting.
    —Washington Post (Jan 20, 2014)
    From Tupi, a native language of Brazil. ipecac is a shortened form of the long Portuguese name which itself comes from Tupi ipega'kwãi, which literally means "roadside sick-making plant."
  2. cashew
    a kidney-shaped nut
    The only slight disappointment was the single dessert option I tried: Kheer, described on the menu as “Tibetan-style rice pudding with cardamom, cashew and almonds.”
    —New York Times (Oct 3, 2014)
    English took this word from French acajou, but it's roots go back to Tupi acajuba, the name of the tree where the nut is found.
  3. cayenne
    plant bearing very hot and finely tapering long peppers
    Coriander and cumin lend fragrant earthiness, with a little cayenne pepper added for a hint of heat.
    —Los Angeles Times (Oct 1, 2014)
    There is a town of Cayenne in French Guyana, but the plant and the town are only associated by mistake. Cayenne is merely French for "Guyana." The Tupi name for the plant that produces the peppers is kyynha.
  4. piranha
    small carnivorous fish of South America
    “Kitchykitchykitchykoo” John said, tapping his finger on the side of an aquarium that had two piranha flesh-eating fish in it.
    —The Pigman, Paul Zindel
    From Tupi, pira nya or pira'ya, literally "scissor-fish."
  5. cougar
    large American feline resembling a lion
    When more died, they thought they had a hungry cougar, but experts determined the culprit was canine.
    —Seattle Times (Oct 4, 2014)
    The Portuguese is çuçuarana and while the etymology is somewhat in dispute, chances are good that this form comes from Tupi susuarana, from suasu, "deer," and rana, "false."
  6. petunia
    any of numerous tropical herbs having fluted funnel-shaped flowers
    Now that the long, wet winter was over and it was warm enough for planting, Mr. Crane would want him to fill the flower beds with petunias and pansies and the little pink impatiens that his wife favored, color to tide her over until her azaleas and rose bushes bloomed.
    —Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez
    French petun was once a word for the tobacco plant, to which petunias are closely related. The original Guarani (a language related to Tupi but spoken primarily in Paraguay) is pety, a word which also referred to the tobacco plant.
  7. pecan
    tree of southern United States and Mexico cultivated for its nuts
    Pumpkin spice has warm, earthy notes, and the blend pairs perfectly with nuts, particularly pecans.
    —Los Angeles Times (Sep 26, 2014)
    The French pacane, where the English word comes from, itself originally came from an Algonquin word meaning "nut," but it's unclear which exact language, as there are many possible candidates, including Cree pakan or Ojibwa bagaan.
  8. skunk
    American musteline mammal typically ejecting an intensely malodorous fluid when startled; in some classifications put in a separate subfamily Mephitinae
    Fast facts: Skunks are black and white and best known for their horrible-smelling spray, an oily liquid produced by glands under their large tails.
    —Los Angeles Times (Oct 4, 2014)
    From Abenaki, an Algonquin language, seganku, which itself is from Proto-Algonquin elements that translate as "urinating fox."
  9. tuxedo
    formal evening dress for men
    Push the Champagne Button and a waiter dons a tuxedo to deliver your bubbly.
    —Forbes (Aug 19, 2014)
    Tuxedos got their name from Tuxedo Park, NY, where the first one is said to have been worn. Tuxedo Park's name in turn comes from a name from the Munsee Delaware people, p'tuck - sepo, "crooked river."
  10. terrapin
    any of various edible North American web-footed turtles living in fresh or brackish water
    The 1,007 confiscated reptiles are mostly juvenile hatchlings less than a month old, and include more than 750 diamondback terrapins.
    —Washington Times (Oct 3, 2014)
    From an Algonquin source, like Abenaki turepe or Munsee Delaware tolpew.
  11. pemmican
    lean dried meat pounded fine and mixed with melted fat
    True pemmican was not manufactured, although the pulverized buffalo meat was mixed with dried roots and berries preparatory to being eaten.
    —Robert F. Murphy
    From Cree pimihke:w, " he makes grease"
  12. abalone
    a large edible marine gastropod with an ear-shaped shell
    The holy grail for divers is an abalone with a 10-inch shell.
    —Seattle Times (Jul 26, 2014)
    From Spanish abulon, although the word goes back further to Costanoan, a language family of the California Coast, where the word is aluan and refers specifically to the red abalone.
  13. Sasquatch
    large hairy humanoid creature said to live in wilderness areas of the United States and Canada
    Another Snohomish man said his experience hunting Sasquatch makes him able to tell when others are lying about having seen it.
    —Seattle Times (Aug 15, 2014)
    Sasquatch derives from Halkomelem, an indigenous language of the Pacific Northwest, where the creature figures in folktales as a generally benign presence whose name is Sasq'ets.
  14. jalapeno
    hot green or red pepper
    The roasted corn and watermelon salad in a balsamic dressing spiked with fresh mint and jalapeño peppers tasted like summer in a bowl.
    —New York Times (Aug 29, 2014)
    The Spanish literally means "of Jalapa," a place in Mexico. The Nahuatl source of jalapeño, which is xalapan, is also a description of the where the pepper comes from, "sand by the water": xalli "sand," atl, "water," and pan, "place."
  15. jaguar
    a large spotted feline of tropical America similar to the leopard; in some classifications considered a member of the genus Felis
    The work in Belize and the research on jaguars was now to be continued by others.
    —Scientific American (Aug 22, 2014)
    From Tupi jaguara, which likely designated any large beast of prey.
Created on October 7, 2014 (updated August 16, 2019)

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