15 Words We Stole From Other Languages But Totally Botched In The Process

List Rules
Vote up the worst attempts to steal from other languages.

For how often we use the English language every day, few of us take the time to consider where these thousands of words actually came from

Our language was developed in a few different ways. Sometimes, we grabbed loanwords - meaning we barely changed the original spelling and definition. (Think “siesta” - it means the same in English as in Spanish - “a short, daytime nap.”) Then there are words that we tried to borrow - but ended up bungling pretty awfully in the process. Like “ketchup” - it's an iconic tomato condiment, right? Well, originally the word meant “pickled fish” in Chinese. 

If you're an etymology buff or simply curious to learn where the term “orangutan” came from, buckle up - there are some real head-scratchers here that will make you wonder, “What were they thinking?”


  • 1
    70 VOTES


    Definition: a person who is in charge of other people

    Country of origin: Japanese

    Story: “Honcho” started being used in English shortly after World War II, where American prisoners had heard a similar term in Japan. What these prisoners were really hearing was han (which means “squad leader”) and chō (which means “head” or "chief").

    So when we say, “Elizabeth is the head honcho around here,” we're basically saying “the head head” and being incredibly redundant.

    70 votes
  • 2
    56 VOTES


    Definition: a seasoned pureed condiment usually made from tomatoes

    Language of origin: Chinese

    Story: In the 1690s, “ke-stiap” meant something very different in China. Believe it or not, “ke-stiap” was a concoction of pickled fish and spices

    In the West, 100 years later, tomatoes were added to the sauce - creating what we know today as ketchup (or “catsup” if you really want to throw a wrench in the works).

    56 votes
  • Apron
    Photo: Suyash Jagtap official / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
    39 VOTES


    Definition: a garment usually of cloth, plastic, or leather usually tied around the waist and used to protect clothing or adorn a costume

    Language of origin: French

    Story: Throwing “an” in front of a French word gave us the term we use today for the kitchen clothing staple. 

    In medieval French, “naperon meant a tablecloth. As the word was repeated around the English, many people started thinking they were hearing “an apron," and the current term was born. 

    39 votes
  • Shark
    Photo: Albert Kok / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
    43 VOTES


    Definition: any of numerous mostly marine cartilaginous fishes of medium to large size that have a fusiform body, lateral branchial clefts, and a tough usually dull gray skin roughened by minute tubercles 

    Language of origin: German

    Story: Most people who hear “pool shark” or “card shark” assume the name comes from the fear-inducing fish. However, it turns out the opposite is true. 

    In the late 1500s, “schorck” was the German term for a "dishonest person who preys on others." With that context in mind, it makes sense that the English started applying a similar word to the great predators of the sea. 

    43 votes
  • 5
    57 VOTES


    Definition: a largely herbivorous arboreal anthropoid ape (Pongo pygmaeus) of Borneo and Sumatra that is about ²/₃ as large as the gorilla and has brown skin, long sparse reddish-brown hair, and very long arms

    Language of origin: Malay

    Story: Back in the 1690s, Europeans were exploring Borneo and the surrounding islands. When they heard the townspeople say orang utan, they thought they meant the large reddish-brown ape. 

    However, the locals weren't talking about the apes at all. Instead, they were referring to the savage forest tribes. In fact, orang means "man" and utan means “forest, wilderness, the wild” - so they were literally saying “man of the woods.”

    57 votes
  • Cookie
    Photo: Lisa Fotios / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    61 VOTES


    Definition: a small flat or slightly raised cake 

    Language of origin: Dutch

    Story: “Cookie” is already an interesting English word, in the sense that it's a very American term. (In Britain, for example, these sugary treats are called “biscuits.”)

    Yet, the word originally came from the Dutch word “koekie," which meant “cake.” 

    61 votes