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Many Food Names in English Come From Africa

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On a recent program, we told you stories of English words borrowed from other languages. Today, we will tell you about words English has taken from African languages.

Many of these words entered English as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Joseph E. Holloway is a historian of African-American history. In his paper African Crops and Slave Cuisine, he explains the way many crops from Africa reached North America.

Drawing of a ship carrying enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
Drawing of a ship carrying enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Slave ships carried these crops as food for enslaved Africans during the long voyage. The foods included rice and other grains, okra, yams, different kinds of beans and peanuts.

And, as we will discuss today, some of the food names later became part of the English language.

Yam

Let’s start with the yam. The yam was the most common food fed to enslaved Africans on ships traveling to the Americas. Yams are long, starchy vegetables with white, reddish or purple flesh.

What many Americans call a yam is actually a sweet potato. American supermarkets are largely responsible for the confusion; they often mark yams as sweet potatoes.

The word yam is of West African origin. Two languages spoken there have similar versions of the word. In Fulani, the word is nyami and it means “to eat.” In Twi, the word is anyinam.

The yam -- both the vegetable and its name -- is of African origin.
The yam -- both the vegetable and its name -- is of African origin.

Portuguese and Spaniards brought yams to the Americas through Guyana and Brazil. Yams later became common throughout the Caribbean.

In the late 1500s, the Portuguese changed the word to inhame; the Spanish changed it to iñame. Its first usage in English was igname. By the mid-1600s, the English spelling had changed to y-a-m.

And today, in Jamaican Patois – an English-based language with African influences – the word nyam still means “to eat.”

Okra

Another vegetable with an African name - and origin - is okra. Okra is a tall, green plant whose pods are eaten as a vegetable. It is often used in soups and similar dishes. The original word was okuru, from the Igbo language of Nigeria.

Okra reached the Caribbean and the United States in the 1700s. Not long after, the vegetable was introduced in Europe.​

Gumbo is considered the official dish of Louisiana. The dish has an okra and tomato sauce base and typically contains seafood, sausage, rice and spices..
Gumbo is considered the official dish of Louisiana. The dish has an okra and tomato sauce base and typically contains seafood, sausage, rice and spices..

In the American state of Louisiana, okra has been used for centuries to thicken stews and soups. During colonial times, African, European and Native American cultures mixed to form what would become Creole culture. Today, okra is still a key part of Creole cooking, especially its most famous dish: gumbo. Interestingly, the word gumbo once meant simply “okra.” The original word was ki ngombo, from Mbundu, a language of Angola.

Goober

Our next food name with African origins is goober. The American English word goober once commonly meant peanut. The word was used throughout the American South in the 19th century, with the first known English usage in 1833.

As Holloway’s paper explains, “Union soldiers fighting on southern soil during the Civil War found southern peanuts both tasty and filling.” They even made a song about it called “Eating Goober Peas.”

The word 'goober' was once very common in the American South.
The word 'goober' was once very common in the American South.

The original word, nguba, is the same in two Bantu languages: Kikongo and Kimbundu*.

Today, in American English, goober is rarely used to mean peanut. More often, it is used informally to mean “a foolish or simple person.”

Banana

The word banana is believed to come from Wolof, a West African language of Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. In Wolof, the word is banaana. Some research also links the word to bana, from the Mande language of Liberia in West Africa.

The word 'banana' is believed to be of Wolof origin.
The word 'banana' is believed to be of Wolof origin.

Many historians say bananas probably first grew in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea around 6,000 years ago. Recent research shows that Africans began harvesting this fruit at least 4,500 years ago. How the fruit reached Africa from Asia is more of a mystery, although many reports say Arab traders may have brought them there. One Arabic word for finger or toe is banan.

In the late 1500s, Portuguese and Spanish colonists took the fruit with them from Africa to the Americas and brought along its African name. The Portuguese began banana plantations in the Caribbean islands and Brazil.

Then, in 1633, an herbalist in Britain sold the first banana to reach Europe at his store.

Jumbo

Along with food names, English has borrowed other kinds of words from African languages. One example is jumbo.

In English, the word jumbo is an adjective that means “very large for its type.”

Today, the word can be found in many places where products are sold: supermarkets, online stores and even restaurants.

In Washington, D.C., for example, Jumbo Slice is the name of a popular late-night pizza place that sells very, very large pieces of pizza.

The word came into popular American usage in an interesting way. Jumbo was the name of an African bull elephant that was a zoo animal and a circus performer.

An 1882 advertisement for a circus called P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth
An 1882 advertisement for a circus called P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth

Historical accounts say Jumbo was captured as a baby elephant in East Africa in 1861. His captors brought him to France and sold him to a botanical garden. He lived there in unhealthy conditions.

Later, the London Zoo purchased Jumbo. He became a main attraction there. In 1882, the zoo sold him to a famous American circus.

Jumbo was reportedly a very calm animal. At his largest, he stood 3.6 meters tall. After his death, his name became a synonym for “huge.”

But as early as the 1820s, jumbo was a slang term used to describe a big, clumsy person, animal or thing. Language experts say the word may come from the word nzamba – a word that now means “forest” in Kongo, a language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Angola.

Some accounts define the word nzamba as “elephant,” though this may be an outdated meaning.

Join us again soon to learn the history of English words borrowed from other languages.

I’m Phil Dierking.

And I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Words in This Story

voyage – n. a long journey to a distant or unknown place especially over water or through outer space

flesh – n. the soft part of a fruit that is eaten

origin – n. the point or place where something begins or is created

pod – n. a long, thin part of some plants that has seeds inside

peanut – n. a nut with a thin shell that grows under the ground and that can be eaten

herbalist – n. a person who grows, sells, or uses herbs to treat illness

circus – n. a traveling show that is often performed in a tent and that typically includes trained animals, clowns and acrobats

botanical – adj. of or relating to plants or the study of plants

attraction – n. something interesting or enjoyable that people want to visit, see, or do

synonym – n. a word that has the same meaning as another word in the same language

slang – n. words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and are used informally in speech, especially by a particular group of people

*Kikongo is spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Angola. Kimbundu is a language of Angola. Both are from the Bantu language group.

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