Booze, zombies and dollars: the words the world gave English

Wednesday 03 April 2013

The English language may have been born in the UK, but a list of words featuring in a new British Council exhibition reveals the extent to which English has become a global language, with many of our favourite words – including booze, zombie and dollar - originating overseas. (Download ten of the best)

The British Council has released the list to mark the opening today of The English Effect - a major new exhibition at its London headquarters, exploring the power, impact and value of the English language around the world. One of the exhibition’s three zones will be dedicated to the words that English has absorbed from other languages, reflecting the many countries and cultures with which it has come into contact throughout history.

Dollar tops the list. Ironically, the word – which is synonymous with America’s financial might – entered the English language from German. It originates from the word Taler, which was a shortened form of Joachimstaler – a coin first minted in 1519 from the silver of a mine in the town of Joachimsthal.

Despite the urban myth that the word bungalow was coined when a builder was told to ‘bung a low roof’ on a property after running out of bricks, the word actually originated in the Bengal region, where it was a name for one-storey homes built for early European immigrants, originally meaning ‘belonging to Bengal’.

Booze has its origins in the medieval Dutch busen, which means ‘to drink to excess’ – and was first used in English by the thieves and beggars of the 1500s before spreading to the wider population. Zombie and vampire – staples of many modern movies – have their roots in West Africa and Hungary respectively.

John Worne, Director of Strategy at the British Council, said: "Many of our most popular and evocative English words - words we couldn't live without - came from other countries and cultures. When we look at their roots, we get a fascinating insight into how the language has been influenced throughout its history. English is not just 'our' language – it truly belongs to the whole world, and brings real benefits to anyone who can speak it. Even a few words can bring work, a job or new opportunities.”

The English Effect exhibition runs from today until Saturday 29 June at the British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN – between Trafalgar Square and the Mall. The exhibition examines why the English language is one of the UK’s great assets, with three zones exploring the impact of English on the economy, its effect on individuals, and its status as a global language. The exhibition is open from Monday to Friday between 10am and 4pm, and Saturday between 10am and 12pm. Admission is free.

The British Council helps people around the world to learn English as part of its work to build relationships for the UK through English, education and the arts. It teaches English, administers language qualifications, and works to improve English in education systems worldwide. Research by the British Council shows that English speakers can earn significantly more – and are more likely to trust and want to do business with the UK.

Notes to Editor

For more on the English Effect exhibition, visit www.britishcouncil.org/englisheffect

Twitter hashtag: #EnglishEffect

For media enquiries or to interview John Worne, contact Mark Moulding in the British Council Press Office on 0207 389 4889 or mark.moulding@britishcouncil.org

See below for the full Top Ten list of words. You can also download a graphic here.

The research was carried out for the British Council by Dr Philip Durkin, Principal Etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary.

About the British Council

The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide. We are a Royal Charter charity, established as the UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations.

We work in more than 100 countries, and our 7000 staff – including 2000 teachers – work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year through English, arts, education and society programmes.

We earn over 75% of our annual turnover of £739 million from services which customers pay for, education and development contracts we bid for and from partnerships. A UK Government grant provides the remaining 25%.  We match every £1 of core public funding with over £3 earned in pursuit of our charitable purpose.

For more information, please visit: http://www.britishcouncil.org/. You can also keep in touch with the British Council through http://twitter.com/britishcouncil and http://blog.britishcouncil.org