Many English terms come from American Indian terms

October 20, 2006|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

"Was Tiger Lily a real Indian?"

My 7-year-old had seen the tepee name tags on the desks in the third-grade classrooms and was intrigued.

"Well, dear, I guess there could have been a real Indian named Tiger Lily," I said. "Most of the time we associate the princess in 'Peter Pan' with that name."

It's also a common name for several types of lilies.

"Don't Indians have a name for the babies that they carried on their backs?" she asked. "That's a papoose, isn't it?"

I nodded, thinking of all the terms we've received from various American Indian tribes and how their culture has had an impact on our lives.


This is the time of year that children are learning about Indians. For the next month or so, interest is high as we lead into the days preceding Thanksgiving.

Why not tap into that curiosity? As parents, we can supplement what they're learning in school with a few tidbits of our own.

Here are some words that originated with various Indian tribes. See how many you can drop into conversations with children over the next several weeks.

Catoctin - Indian meaning "speckled rock" (Algonquian tribe)

chipmunk - the animal (Algonquian or Ojibwa tribe)

Conestoga wagon - named after an Iroquois tribe that became extinct in 1763, this heavy covered wagon was first made in Conestoga, Pa., which was named for the tribe.

hominy - "that which is good"; hulled and dried kernels of corn, boiled for food (Algonquian tribe)

hooch - cheap or bootleg liquor, short for hoochino, from Hootsnoowoos, a Tlingit tribe that distilled liquor illegally. (You probably don't need to share this term with your children, but I threw it in because I think it's a funny-sounding word and I thought you'd appreciate its origin.)

Mackinaw - "island of the large turtle," referring to Mackinac Island in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; or a heavy woolen blanket distributed to the Indians by the government. (Ojibwa tribe)

Minnesota - "the waters reflect the weather" (Dakota tribe)

Mississippi - "great water" or "big water" (attributed to several tribes)

moccasin - a heelless shoe of soft leather (Algonquian tribe)

Niagara - "overwhelming flood" (Iroquois)

opossum - the animal (Algonquian tribe)

papoose - an Indian infant or very young child (Narragansett tribe)

pemmican - trail food made of dried meat pounded fine, mixed with fat and dried fruits or berries (Cree tribe)

Podunk - &swamp;" small, unimportant and isolated town. (Natick tribe)

pone - corn bread in the shape of a loaf or cake (Algonquian tribe)

powwow - a council meeting of Indians (Narragansett tribe)

Quebec - "where the river narrows" (Algonquian tribe)

raccoon - the animal (Algonquian tribe)

skunk - the animal (Algonquian tribe)

squash - the plant (Narragansett tribe)

succotash - a corn and lima bean mixture (Narragansett tribe)

tepee - a cone-shaped tent (Dakota tribe)

terrapin - a North American aquatic turtle (Algonquian tribe)

toboggan - a long, narrow runnerless sled or a stocking cap (Micmac tribe)

tomahawk - a light ax (Algonquian tribe)

totem - an object serving as the emblem of a clan or family (Ojibwa tribe)

For more information, check out the book "O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English" by Charles L. Cutler. The book, which is available from Washington County Free Library, was a valuable source for this column.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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