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A Goulash of Language: English With Hungarian Roots

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 11/12/2013

Some English words have roots that travel all the way to the tiny country of Hungary, a land of beautiful terrain, spirited horses and toe-tapping music. Peruse a list of English words of Hungarian origin, and you will learn a bit about the culture of this European country as well.

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    Borrowed Words

    Help your students beef up their vocabulary with this cultural lesson. The English language has a propensity for borrowing words from other languages. Some words are taken wholly with their definitions intact or slightly altered, while other words are morphed into English versions using consonants and vowels familiar to English speakers.

    From Hungary, a couple words are spelled the same in Hungarian as they are in English. These words are paprika and biro.

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    Peppers and Pens

    Anyone who cooks knows that paprika is a spice made from ground, dry peppers. Paprika is used to give color as well as to enhance the flavor of soups, salads and casseroles. Ground paprika can be mild to hot depending on the peppers used to create it.

    Fun Fact — A Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Prize winner (1937), Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi, discovered that the vitamin C found in paprika was higher in content than that found in citric fruits such as oranges and lemons, making it the richest source of vitamin C to exist.

    Another creative Hungarian, Laszlo Biro, a journalist by trade, realized one day that the ink on the printing presses stayed wet longer than the ink from the inkwell. After various attempts, he and his brother developed what would end up being the ballpoint pen. In England and other places around the world, the ballpoint pen is still called a biro, after its creator.

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    Going to the Dogs

    Hungarian Hunting Dogs - Vizsla Hungarians have a long heritage of farming and shepherdry. They have given the world four distinct breeds of dog, the puli, the vizsl, the kuvasz and the komondor. Their names are the same in English as they are in their native Hungarian.

    The komondor, kuvasz and puli are all sheep dogs with long, dread-lock curls. The puli, the smallest of the three, is easily mistaken for mop heads, when curled up on the floor.

    The vizsla is a hunting dog, looking much like a pointer. Unlike many hunting dogs, however, the vizsla is odor-free.

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    Musical Words

    Nothing pulls the heartstrings like the sound of the Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt. Music to the people of Hungary is akin to water for fish. In English, there are two words affiliated with music that come from Hungarian roots — czardas and verbunkos.

    The czardas is a national dance done it two movements, the first slow, followed by a faster movement. Etymologists believe that the English word comes from the Hungarian, csárda, the name for a wayside tavern, the place where the dance was done. Musicians also use this term for a piece of work written in the same rhythm.

    The verbunkos is a military recruiting dance, repetitively alternating between face and slow rhythms. This dance was done by hussars (we'll get to that word later) during the 18th and early 19th centuries to recruit able-bodied young men.

    Fun Fact: The Hungarians borrowed the word, werbung, meaning recruiting, from the Germans to name this dance.

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    What's Cooking

    Gastronomics is another field in which the Hungarians excel. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that there are culinary words used in English rooted in Hungarian. They are goulash, halászlé, tokaji and tokay.

    Goulash, the best-known word, comes from the Hungarian, gulyás, which means herdsman. Gulyásleves is a Hungarian soup made by the shepherds. Goulash recipes vary from family to family, but the main ingredients for real Hungarian Goulash are meat, onions, potatoes and paprika. Some people add other vegetables, and some add pasta, as in American Goulash. One thing is for sure, nothing beats it on a cold winter day.

    Halászlé is a fisherman's soup, made from river fish, large and small, cherry and green peppers, onion and lots of paprika. Variations of this soup abound, change in the type of fish and the amount of seasoning.

    Tokaji or tokay is a wine named after the village of Tokaj. Hungarian tokay is a white wine with a honey-like sweetness. Today, the term tokay is used to describe any number of sweet wines, none of which have any resemblance to their Hungarian counterpart.

    Fun Fact: In Hungary, the sweetness of the wine was measured by the puttonyos (baskets) of grapes used. In other words, a three puttonyos wine had a lighter sweetness than a five puttonyos wine.

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    Military Terms

    Shako Surrounded by other kingdoms and principalities, Hungary was constantly fighting to maintain its independence. Several English words connected to the Hungarian military still exist today. They are hussar, shako or tsako, and saber.

    Hussar comes from the word, huszár, which referred to a light cavalryman. Hussars did not wear armor and usually were armed only with swords. During peacetime, they cut dashing figures in their crisp uniforms and shiny boots, riding their trusty steed through a village; however, during battle, only their expertise as horse and swordsman kept them alive.

    A shako is the tall military, stiff, plumed hat worn by military members. The word comes from csákó süveg, which means peaked cap.

    The Hungarian hussar to the right is wearing his shako as well as his saber. Saber comes from the Hungarian, szablaya, meaning back sword, which comes from the verb, szabni, to slice. Sabers were used to "slice" the opposing forces.

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    Last Coach

    The final word in this list of English words of Hungarian origin is coach. It is a word with multiple meanings. There is the coach that we ride in, drawn by a team of horses and the coach that trains the sports team. The original meaning comes from Hungarian village of Kocs where it is believed the first coaches were made. The second meaning, etymologists tell us, comes from tutors who would teach in the coaches while their patrons were on long trips cross-country. Thereby, the patrons were "coached" by the tutors.