Thursday, March 21, 2013

Czech Loanwords

Czech it out! We've already taken a look at nature-themed Scandinavian loanwords and food-related African loanwords that have made it into the English language. Obviously, it's time to look at the etymology of English terms for beer, dancing, and explosives courtesy of the Czech language.

Two of the competing Budweisers sitting side by side.
In Europe, the American lager is generally sold as Bud.
Budweiser - Beer has been brewed in the Bohemian town of Budweis (now known as the Czech town České Budějovice) since the 13th century, where it earned the name Budweiser, courtesy of German naming conventions. The town was even home to the imperial brewery for the Holy Roman Emperor for a while due to the high quality of its beer. In the present day, the Budweiser name is claimed by three beer companies: two in the town itself, as well as the American company that created its "Budweiser" beer based on the original.

Dollar - This term is used to refer to the official currency of many countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It gets its name from Jachymovsky Tolar, which referred to silver coins minted in the town of Jáchymov, a town located in what is now the Czech Republic. Eventually, versions of the term tolar began to be used in reference to similar coins around the world, such as daler in Norwegian and Talar in Polish.

Kolache - This fruit-filled pastry was originally a typical wedding dessert in central Europe, and is now quite popular in Czech-American communities in the Midwestern United States. Its name comes from the Czech term koláč, which is also said to mean "a small cookie" in Macedonian.

Pilsner - Just as Budweiser was named after the town of Budweis, this type of pale lager gets its name from another Bohemian town, Pilsen. Now known as Plzeň in the Czech Republic, this town was the place where the pilsner was first brewed, and in turn gets its name from the Old Czech word plz, meaning "damp, moist".

Polka - This upbeat music and accompanying lively dance come from the Czech word polka meaning "Polish woman". If only we knew why...

A scene from R.U.R. with three original robots on the right. 
Robot - You might be surprised to see "robot" on this list! It turns out that the word was invented in 1920 for use in a science fiction play called R.U.R., which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots. The play took place in a factory that produces artificial people who can be mistaken for humans, now generally referred to as "androids". In any case, the writer started out by referring to them as laboři, from the Latin word labor, but was unhappy with the name. He asked his brother for advice, who suggested using roboti instead. It came from the Czech words robotnik ("slave") and robota ("forced labor, drudgery"). The word as we know it was used in the English translation of the play.

Semtex - If you like spy shows, amateur terrorism or just blowing stuff up, you've probably heard this word before. It's the name of a general-purpose plastic explosive that has been used by everyone from contractors demolishing buildings to terrorists hoping to cause horrific damage without being detected. Its name comes from Semtín, the Czech suburb where it was first produced, combined with the word explosive.

If you know any Czech loanwords that we didn't include, add them below in the comments. Don't forget to include a definition!