Some words are so intrinsically embedded into our unconscious that we don’t even realise they are foreign words.

Take the internationally-known distress call of ‘May Day!’ for example. It derives from the French verb for help – ‘aider’.

In the 1920s, people were getting used to new international radio communications. A senior air traffic control officer was asked to come up with a word that was easy to pronounce and remember to signify an emergency. He thought of ‘Mayday’ which comes from the French meaning ‘help me’ or ‘m’aidez’.

Mayday is just one of many foreign words we use without realising their origins.

Here are 27 other foreign words you didn’t know you were using every day:



Curfew comes from the French word ‘couvrefeu’ which means to cover fire. It originates from a 13th-century European law. At a certain time, a bell would ring and all fires had to be extinguished or covered.


I’ve always associated denim with America but the origins of the word denim originate in France. A hard-wearing blue twill cloth was originally made in a small French town called Nîmes in the 17th-century. The word denim is a contraction of ‘serge de Nîmes’ (a sturdy cloth from Nîmes).


Have you ever signed a mortgage? Then I hate to tell you that you’ve signed a death pledge. ‘Mort’ means death in French and the whole word describes the promise (or pledge) you have agreed to pay back borrowed money in the future.


You wouldn’t think this word could make it onto a list of foreign words as it sounds like it is from America’s Midwest. However, it is a French word for meadow.


This foreign word comes from the French word ‘portraire’, or to portray, particularly the face.



Surely an alligator is just an alligator? No one invented a word for it? In actual fact, they did. The word comes from the Spanish ‘el lagarto’, or lizard.


This is another word we associate with the US but has its origins in Spain. It comes from the Spanish word ‘cañón’ which means tube. It was used by 19th-century Americans who were exploring Spanish territory in the west.


The Spanish call the dried tobacco leaves rolled in a tobacco leaf a ‘cigarro’ which actually originates from a Mayan word ‘sicar’.


The name of this annoying biting parasite means ‘little fly’ in Spanish.


The word guerrilla is full of connotations around the world. However, it is a Spanish word that means ‘little war’.



Corridor derives from the Italian word ‘corridoio’ which means hallway or passageway.


This foreign word comes from Italy and the custom of throwing candy (confetto) on festive occasions.


This word comes from the plural of ‘graffito’ which means ‘scratched’.


You’ll never wear mascara in the same way again after you realise its origins. The word mascara comes from the Italian verb ‘maschera’ which is ‘to disguise’.



The moped is a contraction of ‘motor’ and ‘pedaler’ and comes from Sweden.



Cookies are practically synonymous with the US but did you know their origins are firmly in Europe? The word cookie is derived from the Dutch word ‘koekie’ which means ‘little cake’ or ‘like a little cake’.


Sketch is another Dutch word that comes from ‘schets’ or ‘to make a rough drawing’.



Anonymous is from the Greek word ‘anōnumos’ and means someone or something without a name.



Most of us think of noodles and Eastern countries such as China or Japan, but the word originated a lot closer to home. As a matter of fact, the word comes from the German ‘nudel’ which translated means a long, thin strip of dough.


This is another one of those words you wouldn’t think has foreign origins, but it comes from Germany. In German, ‘rücken’ means ‘back’ and sack means bag. Hence a sack worn on the back.



Unfortunately, we have all heard of tsunamis and we can even pronounce them properly now. We understand them to be those huge destructive waves you get in extreme weather conditions. But in Japanese, they simply mean ‘harbour wave’.



How can this be one of our foreign words? But it’s true, this common western condiment originated in China. It was first called ‘Ke-stiap’ and was a blend of pickled fish and spices. Then tomatoes were added and it became ketchup.


Have you ever had to kowtow to someone? We know it means to act in a subservient way, but the actual meaning comes from ‘Kòu tóu’ which is a respectful bow that involves touching your head to the floor.


The English and Chinese have very different meanings attached to this word. English translate gung-ho as an ‘overzealous attitude’, but in China, it means ‘to work together’.



Chocolate arrived in the English language after travelling through Spanish but it originated in Mexico as ‘xocolatl’.



The humble lemon is a word derived from the Arabic for yellow citrus fruit which is ‘laimun’. It caught on and now lemon is synonymous with the colour as much as it is with the fruit.


My final foreign word is sofa. Sofa is surely an English word? But no. Described as a ‘long seat full of cushions’, it comes from the Arabic word ‘uffa’.

What foreign words do you know that are now part of our English language? Let us know in the comments box!



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