Eight Surprising Words From Portuguese

Sagres Tall Ship Visits San Diego Bay

The Portuguese got around. Starting in the 15th century, Portuguese sailors and navigators explored Africa, South America, Japan, China, India, and the Middle East. Eventually the country had established the Portuguese Colonial Empire, the “first global empire in history.”

Inevitably Portuguese words worked their way into these cultures and eventually over to English, sometimes in surprising ways. Here are eight words you might not know come from Portuguese.


“Many people in Tanzania — and across Africa, for that matter — believe albinos have magical powers. . . .Tanzanian officials say witch doctors are now marketing albino skin, bones and hair as ingredients in potions that are promised to make people rich.”

Jeffrey Gettleman, “Albinos, Long Shunned, Face Threat in Tanzania,” The New York Times, June 8, 2008

An albino is “a person or animal lacking normal pigmentation.” Prevalence of albinism is “highest overall in people of sub-Saharan African descent.”

The word is a diminutive of Portuguese albo, meaning “white,” and was used “by Portuguese of white-spotted African[s].” The Portuguese first began exploring the African coast in 1419.


“Graduating smoothly from running errands and doing odd jobs to acting as amah and housekeeper, she became the backbone of the Buck household and later, when Pearl finally left China, of the Thomsons’ too.”

Hilary Spurling, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth

We would have assumed that the word amah, “a housemaid, especially a wet nurse, in India and the Far East,” came from an East Asian or Indian language. However, it comes from the Portuguese ama, “nurse,” which comes from the Medieval Latin amma, “mother.”

From the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries, the Portuguese had long stopovers in China during their travels to and from Japan.


“There was Rickon Goold, the ringleader, and four others, and they brought away a little boy who was lying fast asleep, because one of them had been in the service of his father, and because of the value of his Indian clothes, which his ayah made him wear now in his little cot for warmth.”

R.D. Blackmore, Mary Anerley, 1880

Ayah is another word we thought would have Asian roots. The Hindi āyā actually comes from the Portuguese aia, “nursemaid,” which comes from the Latin avia, “grandmother.” While amah is often used in East Asian countries and cultures, ayah seems to be primarily used in India.

In addition to China, India was a stopover for the Portuguese during the time they journeyed back and forth from Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries.


“The Dodo was native to Mauritius when no humans lived there, but its numbers rapidly dwindled after the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch sailors in the 1500s.”

Dutch Diggers Discover Skeleton of Extinct Dodo Bird,” Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, December 26, 2005

The dodo, as most people know, is a clumsy, flightless, long-extinct bird that once inhabited the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. When Portuguese sailors first encountered the bird, they dubbed the poor thing doudo, simpleton or fool.

The dodo is now something of a celebrity among extinct species, making appearances in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the idioms dead as a dodo and to go the way of the dodo, which describe anything out-of-date or obsolete.


“Nevertheless, they saw, though unable to get near them, a couple of those large birds peculiar to Australia, a sort of cassowary, called emu, five feet in height, and with brown plumage, which belong to the tribe of waders.”

Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island, 1874

The emu is a large flightless bird found in Australia and “related to and resembling the ostrich and the cassowary.” The word emu was once thought to have come from an Arabic term meaning “large bird,” but now is thought to have originated from the Portuguese word for “ostrich,” ema.

While it’s commonly thought that Australia was “discovered” by the Dutch in 1606, there’s the theory that the Portuguese first arrived on the continent more than 80 years earlier.


“This indeed was the solution, and had the boys known it there are many such rocks in Africa, carved out by some forgotten race, and the weird cries that the vent-holes give out in the wind doubtless acted as a powerful ‘fetish’ to keep away troublesome enemies.”

Captain Wilbur Lawton, The Boy Aviators in Africa, 1911

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest English forms of fetish came directly from the Portuguese feitiço, “charm, sorcery.” (The Portuguese came from the Latin factīcius, “artificial.”) The word originally referred to objects “used by the indigenous peoples of the Guinea coast and the neighbouring regions as amulets or means of enchantment, or regarded by them with superstitious dread.”

In the 17th century, fetish came to refer to any object “believed to have magical or spiritual powers, especially such an object associated with animistic or shamanistic religious practices”; by the 1830s, “something irrationally reverenced”; and around 1901, “a material object or a nonsexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification.”


“This ‘joss’ was a thick stake of wood, six or eight feet high, with the upper part roughly carved into the shape of a very ugly human face, and crudely coloured in vermilion and green.”

F.A. McKenzie, Korea’s Fight for Freedom, 1920

Joss, a Chinese god or idol, is another word that came from Portugal’s time in China. Originally Chinese pidgin English, the word is corruption of the Portuguese deos, “god,” which comes from the Latin deus.


Tempura embodies qualities Japanese cooks hold dear: fresh ingredients, precision cooking and beautiful presentation.”

Tempura – Or Is It Tapas?” Brisbane Times, May 12, 2008

Wait, so tempura isn’t originally Japanese? Nope: the word probably comes from the Portuguese tempero, “seasoning.” According to this Brisbane Times article, which cites the book, Japan: Its History and Culture, by W. Scott Morton:

by 1569, there were about 300,000 Christian converts in Japan and that linguistic borrowings from this period include the Portuguese words for bread (“pan,” from the Portuguese “pao”) and tempura “for fried shrimp in batter, derived from the fact that on Ember Days, “quattour tempora” days of fasting and abstinence, the Jesuit fathers ate only seafood.

The Portuguese remained in Japan until they were expelled in 1639.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Port of San Diego]

3 thoughts on “Eight Surprising Words From Portuguese

  1. This is a very interesting article and I must say I’ve learnt a lot.

    I would like to add another word, Arigato in Japanese (meaning Thank You) is a corruption from the Portuguese word Obrigado.

    In Portuguese, Ema is not Ostrich but is a Rhea; and the word Deus is written with a “u” not a “o”.

    I’ll continue following your blog!

  2. Very interesting article, thanks for sharing!
    You can get this list even bigger, if you include:
    i) Several Japanese words

    ii) Indian word Vindaloo or Vindalho, a curry dish from Goa inspired in a Portuguese way of marinate meat (mostly pork and rabbit) with wine and garlic (“vinho” and “alho”), the word results from contraction of vinho de alhos

    iii) Malasada, a dish taken to Hawaii

    Words for “orange” in some European languages Greek portokali, Albanian portokalle, Turkish portakal (rengi) and Romanian portocaliu seem to be derived from “Portugal” (Neo-Latin Portocalea).
    In the 15th/16th century the Portuguese introduced a new variety of sweet orange into Europe from China which became very popular in Europe and was known as the “Portugal orange”.

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