10 everyday English words imported from Asia

If you didn’t already know, English is a language of borrowing. They sort of made it a hobby when they were still the “British Empire” and they borrowed words from their colonies left, right and centre.

They haven’t dropped the habit.

Recently, they inducted 19 “Singaporean English” (ahem, Singlish) words into the revered Oxford English Dictionary. Words like “sotong” (Malay for squid, means blur) and “shiok” (great or delicious).

This made me wonder. What other English words were imported from Asia, but have been around so long that most people have forgotten they weren’t originally English?

And I found a bunch of them. Here are the top ten I found interesting.

1. Tycoon

Originally from the Japanese taikun, it was used by visitors to Japan to describe the Shogun, the military ruler of Japan. Eventually, of course, tycoon became a description of generally wealthy business people.

2. Futon

Another Japanese word. Futon was a reference to a mattress used on the floor. However, as it was imported into English, it became a word describing a sofa/bed generally used as a spare bed for families or primary bed for university students.

3. Muggers

That is, the people who rob others. (Not students who study too much.) This word came from the Hindi word for a crocodile, magar. It came to refer to snatch thieves when, in the late 19th century, companies began to make purses from crocodile skins for Victorian ladies. And then, of course, thieves began to steal them, and thus muggers got their name.

4. Compound

I was surprised when I saw this one. Apparently, compound is derived from the Malay (or Indonesian) word kampong, which, loosely described, is a village or hamlet. Compound, on the other hand (to me, at least), suggests a well protected place. Like a military compound. I guess some of the meaning was lost in the translation.

5. Brainwashing

It sounds very English, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it was a phrase translated literally from Mandarin, xinao, or basically, wash brain. It was used by the Chinese forces in the Korean War, and appeared in English when Western media adopted the word to describe POWs’s attitudes after the war.

6. Amok/Amuck/Amock

Technically, this word came from the Portuguese word amouco; however, they got it from the Malay word amok. Apparently it was used to describe a person in a homicidal frenzy back in the 17th century. It seems to have been watered down since them to simply mean behaving uncontrollably and chaotically.

7. Kowtow

I guess this one was kind of obvious, but whatever. Kowtow came from the Cantonese phrase kautau, which basically meant to knock one’s head. In English, it refers to someone who acts in an extremely subservient manner. (I guess if you’re bowing really low, you will knock your head at some point.)

8. Candy

The word candy is derived from the Sanskrit khanda. The word then traveled to France as candi before being turned into the English word candy.

9. Loot

Loot originally came from the Hindi loot, which was to steal or to rob. Of all these words, this one has remained one of the most unchanged, with loot still being used to refer to robbing, although it has been picked up as a noun to referring to stolen goods.

10. (Fruit) Punch

Derived from the Hindi word panch, the word basically meant five, referencing the fact that there were five original ingredients in punch: water, alcohol, sugar, tea and lemon. Given that it contained alcohol, I guess spiking punch wasn’t unnatural back in the day: it was how it was supposed to be drunk.

And that ends my tour of English words that came from Asia. What other common English words do you know that were imported?

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