Themes > Cross Culture > Words! Words! Words!
Words! Words! Words!


1. What does "crook" mean?
2. What does "naff" mean?
3. What does "grunge" mean?

This quiz just hints at some of the richness and diversity of the English language. There are many varieties of English spoken as a mother-tongue: British, America, Australian and South African, etc. In addition, there are words used only in certain regions, or by a certain age-range, or a particular class. Certain fashionable words are in use for a short time and then become extremely out-of-date.

The English language has a remarkably large vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words. The language contains at least a further half million technical and scientific terms. With Germanic, Celtic and Romance roots, the language contains many words in common with most of the languages spoken in Europe: German, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, French, Italian and Spanish. There are many synonyms (for example, "pick up"="lift").

In addition, another feature of English vocabulary is that many common words in English have been, and continue to be, borrowed from other languages all over the world. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, lists about 900 of these "loan words" coming from India alone. You can also find borrowings from Hebrew, Arabic, Malay, Chinese, the languages of Java, Tahiti and Polynesia. This helps to explain why the English language has one of the richest vocabularies in the languages of the world.

The reason for this richness is partly historical. For instance, from 11th to 15th centuries, French and Latin were the languages of the ruling class and the church in England. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the soldiers, civil servants and other people working for the British Empire overseas brought back many words and expressions from the five continents.

Here are some examples of loan words and their origins:

ballot Italian
garage French
kindergarten German
kiosk Turkish
marmalade Portuguese
ombudsman Swedish
robot Czech
slim Dutch
sofa Arabic
tycoon Japanese
verandah Hindi
window Icelandic

All the above words are very commonly used. In fact, many native speakers of English would be surprised to discover that they were not originally English words.

The English language is far from static. It changes as society changes; new developments and inventions require new words, and people travel. The English vocabulary is in a constant state of renewal with new words and expressions entering the language and other ones disappearing. (During the Gulf War in 1991, for example, the phrase "friendly fire" was coined to describe the unfortunate incidence of troops firing on their allies by mistake, instead of the enemy). As the international language for tourism, diplomacy, aviation, pop music, business, computers and the media (to name but a few!), the English language is constantly evolving new specialist words.


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