Spanish Influence on the English Language Prior to 1800

By Rebecca Schwarz © 2003

The Spanish had a long head start on the English in the exploration, establishment of commercial relations, and colonization of the New World. In 1492, Columbus discovered the Americas on behalf of the Spanish, and the first grammar of a modern European language appeared, with the publication of Antonio de Nebrija’s Gramática de la lengua castellana. Spain became a global power and the centre of a vast and wealthy empire, spreading its language to the Americas and beyond.

Sixteenth-century Spain was a major centre of learning, and Spanish a language of high prestige throughout Europe. During the late sixteenth century, Spanish was the subject of a number of linguistic treatises published in England. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period of rapid colonial expansion among the seafaring nations of Europe, Spain and England competed to amass empires and influence, and Spanish had its first direct impact on the English language. Many English terms for the exotic products, plants, and beasts of the New World come either directly through Spanish, or indirectly, as Amerindian loanwords borrowed by the Spanish.

According to McArthur, among other factors, Early Modern English was distinguished by “massive lexical borrowing […] during the Renaissance and Reformation […] particularly through Spanish and Portuguese, from sources beyond Europe” (McArthur 333), specifically, the New World.

Reasons for such borrowing, according to McArthur, included: “close contact in especially multilingual situations […] domination of some languages by others (for cultural, economic, political, religious, or other reasons) […] a sense of need, users of one language drawing material from another [and] because [the foreign word] seems to be the most suitable term available, the only possible term (with no equivalent in any other language)” (141). This would appear to be the case regarding the Spanish influence on the English language prior to 1800.

According to Bolton, “borrowing from other Indo-European languages […] began when the first Spanish and French explorers of the New World returned to Europe and published their discoveries where Britons could read them, envy them, and ultimately emulate them” (A Living Language 302). Borrowings from Latin-derived languages such as Spanish that date from the sixteenth century tend not to be “the abstract terminology of the scholar […] but more concrete words for objects” (Bolton 214). Additionally, Spanish loanwords originating from native Amerindian languages reached England before the English reached America: “such words probably appealed to the late sixteenth century English taste for rich new vocabulary” (Bolton 314). For example, caribal signified a native of the Caribbean, but another form of the word gave cannibal, and, apparently, Shakespeare’s Caliban.

            For Millward, Spanish and Portuguese, and the nature of their loans to Early Modern English are so similar that “it is impossible to tell whether the immediate source was Spanish or Portuguese” (Millward 286). Words such as hurricane and rusk could have entered via either language, although potato, cannibal, canoe, maize, and hammock are examples of Spanish loanwords originating from Amerindian languages.

According to McArthur, Spanish, similar to English, is an Indo-European language written in the Roman alphabet, and so the absorption of loanwords such as armada into English presents few problems” (McArthur 142). Yet according to Millward, the “un-English endings in –o and –a prevented these words from slipping unnoticed into the general vocabulary [...] such words from Spanish as armada […] seem much more “foreign” than such French loans from the same period as comrade, duel, ticket, and volunteer” (Millward 231).

 McArthur points to a continuum, with some words remaining relatively foreign and unassimilated in both pronunciation and spelling, others becoming more or less acclimatized, while still others becoming so thoroughly acclimatized that “their exotic origin is entirely obscured (as with cockroach from Spanish cucaracha and chocolate through Spanish from Nahuatl chocolatl)” (McArthur 142). Perhaps the thorough acclimatization of both chocolate the object and, regrettably, cockroach the insect, is the cause, or perhaps the original words were simply too un-English, in spelling and pronunciation (the –a ending in cucaracha, the –tl of chocolatl).

Spanish loanwords from the sixteenth century do include the orthographically unadapted words armada, mosquito, armadillo, and negro, while words such as cannibal, barricade, and lime are adapted words.

Many Spanish loanwords are Amerindian: cacique, hammock, and potato from Arawakan; cannibal, canoe, hurricane, and maize from Carib; and cocoa/cacao from Nahuatl. Bolton provides the example of maize and its metamorphosis into corn: the Spanish explorers borrowed the Taino word mahiz for the plant and its grain as the basis for their word maíz, from which the English borrowed maize. Up until then, the English word corn had meant “grain in general”, but the importance of maize to the early colonies probably led to the replacement of maize with Indian corn and then merely corn. Suddenly, a word that stood for grain in the general sense became grain in the specific sense, and the word maize was no longer relevant to distinguish between the various grains. In this instance, a Spanish loanword was adapted then abandoned in favour of redefining an existing English word, an example of assimilation not found on McArthur’s continuum.

Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries

The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation is a disparate collection of sixteenth century documents pertaining to the English exploration of the New World. The second and enlarged edition, published in three successive volumes between 1598-1600, was the work of Richard Hakluyt, archivist, editor, scholar, spy, and England’s first serious geographer. According to my analysis, these documents provide a rich source of information detailing the Spanish influence on English prior to 1800.

By the 1550s, England began to challenge the Spanish monopoly of sea-routes to the Indies, and the period 1575-1620 proved lucrative for the English. The goal of Hakluyt’s documents was to promote national confidence as England explored the New World. In his Particular Discourse on the Western Planting, presented to Queen Elizabeth in Walter Raleigh’s name, Hakluyt provided strategic reasons for English exploration. Spain, the dominant European power, was identified as the enemy of England, to be defeated by inroads upon the Spanish colonial monopoly. American exploration could ultimately allow England to become economically independent of Europe, if only the English dared: “what English ships did heretofore even anchor in the mighty river of Plate? Pass and re-pass the unpassable (in former opinion) strait of Magellan, range along the coast of Chile, Peru, and all the backside of Nova Hispania (Mexico), further than any Christian ever passed?” (Hakluyt 33).

As an Oxford scholar, Hakluyt devoted himself to the study of foreign languages, indispensable to his chosen career. In a letter dated 1580, he boasts of mastering a range of languages, including Spanish. In particular, Hakluyt’s mastery of Spanish allowed him to reveal the secrets of the Spanish navigation of the Americas:

Moreover, because since our wars with Spain, by the taking of their ships, and sacking of their towns and cities, their secrets of the West Indies are fallen into our people’s hands, I have used my best endeavour to translate out of Spanish, and here in this present volume to publish such secrets of theirs, […] There is no chief river, no port, no town, no city, no province of any reckoning in the West Indies that hath not here some good description. (39)


By the time of the enlarged edition, however, England had become a naval power. Hakluyt employs non-English narratives more freely – they comprise a quarter of his work. Of the 350,000 words translated from foreign tongues in the three folio volumes, Hakluyt himself translated a quarter of a million.

There is an abundance of Spanish loanwords: Negro, maize, potato, crocodile, pelican, hurricane, barricade, canoe, cacao, garbanzos, plantain, coco, cacique, cassava, cannibal, hammock, pina (pineapple), armadillo, armada, and plantain. Certain words still appear in the OED but do not appear to have been thoroughly assimilated into English: bastinado (a blow with stick or cudgel), for example. Rove, from the Spanish arroba, signifying a measure of sugar, still appears in the OED but with a multiplicity of meanings, including, curiously, the verb to rove, to wander without direction.

Tortugas is first glossed as tortoises, but later appears without translation: “thousands of tortugas’ eggs” (397). Similarly, mosquitoes are first referred to as “a kind of fly, which the Spaniards called mosquitoes” (140). An account of a later voyage refers to insects that “bite like mosquitoes” (354). The word appears to have been assimilated into English and now becomes a point of reference for understanding other insects.

Only one word is set apart in italics:  “certain fool’s coats […] being called in their language sanbenitos” (147). Not even pesos appears in italics, but sanbenitos were the coats forced on the heretics by the Spanish during the Inquisition, which had found its way to the Americas. The reluctance to embrace such a word is understandable.

Place names are generally given in Spanish: Mexico, San Juan de Ulloa, Alcapulco, Vera Cruz, Guatemala, Havana, Arenas Gordas, San Lucar. But when Miles Philips, an English sailor stranded in Mexico for sixteen years, prepares to leave Spain for England, he leaves from St. Mary Port, not Puerto de Santa Maria. Similarly, it is River of Plate, not Río de la Plata, but Rio Dulce not Sweet River. Perhaps the desire to possess the wealth of this region explains the translation to English.

Macheto still appears in the OED, defined as a quasi-Spanish form derived from the Spanish machete, and is a rare instance of a Spanish word given an un-English, Spanish –o ending, then later modified to the original Spanish form. The first OED citation for machete is from Hakluyt: 2 dozen of machetos to mince the whale (1598) but it should read “A dozen” (160).

Certain Spanish words do not appear in the OED, among them: estacha (from estaca), a clamp-nail; montego de porco (lard); baiben from Spanish vaivén, line or cord; and machico from the Spanish machado, a hatchet.

 One correspondent writes that his “father in law doth intend to put into my hands the whole ingenio” (195). The word ingenio appears in the OED, defined as a sugar-mill, sugar-factory, or sugar-works, from the West Indies. The first citation is from Hakluyt: Building his owne Ingenios or sugar-milles (1600). Likewise, frizado, from the Spanish frisado (silk plush) appears in the OED, as does pintados, from the Spanish painted, a guinea-fowl or eastern chintz. Rusk, from the Spanish rosca, a twisted roll of bread, is an example of a word adapted into English, and appears frequently, as a staple of the explorers’ diet. Similarly, the fish bonito, derived from Spanish adaptation of Arabic bainith, is still in usage. Other words appearing in the OED: provedor, from the Spanish proveedor, meaning purveyor, 1578, first citation Hakluyt; calentura, a disease contracted in the Tropics, 1593; paraquito (no gloss provided in the Voyages), parakeet, 1581; cassado (no gloss provided in the Voyages), a variant of cassava, 1642; and cabritos, or little goats, 1624.

            The need for the English to communicate with the Spanish is frequently referred to: “[…]  he himself went ashore to speak with the Spaniards, to whom he declared himself to be an Englishman” (109);  “[…] he sent again to the Viceroy Robert Barret the master of the Jesus, a man that could speak the Spanish tongue very well” (136).

The account of the aforementioned Miles Philips “Englishman, put on shore in the West Indies […] 1568”, demonstrates the necessity to learn Spanish in order to survive. Captured by the Spanish, Philips befriends “[…] one Robert Sweeting, who was the son of an Englishman born of a Spanish woman: this man could speak very good English”  (144). Philips himself learns the language, later claiming, “I spoke as naturally as any of them all” (152).

By the final voyage (1596), English and Spanish appear together, with no glosses provided for the Spanish words:  “one of them was a caballero” (395); “Cape Desconoscido” (412); “with the captain and the alcalde” (412). Alcalde appears in the OED, defined as magistrate, sheriff, or justice, from the Spanish by way of the Arabic, first OED citation 1615, but the Hakluyt appears to precede that. 

Works Consulted

Bolton, W.F. A Living Language: the History and Structure of English. New York, N.Y. : Random House, 1982

Millward, Celia M. A Biography of the English language. New York : Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989.

McArthur, Tom (ed). The Oxford companion to the English language.  Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1992.