Hi all, it has been a while since we have done a thread or an article because much awareness was being raised on particular issues happening across the continent of Africa. In the mean time, I am doing the usual which is browsing and researching online and being nosy about Africa, trying to see what other unique information I can find.

I had a feeling some would not understand this title, but let me explain it in case it's too easy to miss. This is a play on the ignorance of many non-African people. Often when you tell them you are from Africa, you may come across a person who responds to you with the question: "well do you speak African?" - such a silly question, I know. But the gag is, that there are *several* English terms that are glaringly similar to African native words. So similar in fact, you would think that some of these English words were derived from African language, although they each have a brilliant history and tale of their own, of how they came to fruition in the wider world. So the question becomes, "do WE speak "African"? ... I really hope people appreciate that title as much as me (lol).

I thought this would be quite an interesting post considering we live in a world where the English language is looked at to be very prestigious, dominating and essential to business interactions, tourism and international trade. Admittedly, I was being nosy online again and came across some derivative words from the English language that are compared with original African words, across the continent. It is important to note, that when we speak of the origin of words, we are not referring to their definition in modern day society, it is rather about how the word came about to be used. For example, the first phrase we will look at is the "chachacha", I am not saying this dance originated from Angola, Africa - but I am saying the origin of phrase was derived from Angolan culture, particularly from the Kimbundu language. Please also note, there are many words with different origins and variations that you can find on the internet, and in an English speaking word there is no dictionary that clearly points out how well known English words and phrases came from Africa. So you need to use your better judgement; what is undeniable though, is the core similarities between these English words I am going to mention, and their African counterparts.

The "Chachacha"

This name is said to be derived from the language Kimbundu, spoken in Angola this is onomatopoeia for ringing bells or rattles worn around the legs of a female dancers. Female dancers used to tie things around their legs which would make a jingly "chacha" sound as they danced. Hence why the "chachacha" name was given to the very highly energetic Latin dance. Many writers (Sawe, 2017) describe the Cha-Cha-Cha or Cha Cha "as a lively dance with African influences that developed in Cuba after World War II". It is one of the most famous Latin dances; and it is known for being fun, flirtatious, lively and energetic. Yes it was developed in Cuba, but did we know where that wording came from? That's right, the motherland.

"Merengue" dance

Possibly from the Fulani tribe Mererek, it means "to shake or quiver". this one i found so interesting, mainly because I have written about the Fulani tribe before, specifically those based in Niger and their wedding culture - the men are the ones who are to attract the attention of women by being beautiful and appealing to them. It is also important to note that there are Fulani people in Nigeria also and they have different variations of this dance. Funnily enough, the Fulani have given me yet another reason to honour their culture! Below are two clips of Fulani people doing a traditional dance. One is at the Gerewal celebration in Niger where the Fulani men are dancing. The other is for a dance presentation for Nigerian president Buhari. "To shake or to quiver"... it totally makes sense.


So the tale has it that the English word ”zombie” was actually derived from central Africa, from the Kikongo language, spoken in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. The term In the Kikongo language would be “zumbi” which means "fetish" - this is a really interesting term. It does not describe the meaning of fetish as we know it to be today; fulfilling an extreme fantasy. It is "fetish" or "fetiche [french derivative]" - another way of describing a supernatural force. There is also a rendition of the word in the Kimbundu language spoken in Angola the term isnzambi” - this term is also replicated as "nzambe" in the local Kongolese language Lingala - this term is used to describe a God. The rendition of the word “zombie” in the English language always depicts a negative, harmful character from the dead who terrorises people. But it did not come to the Western world directly from Central Africa. The term zombie or "zombi" was also used to refer to a snake-god in the voodoo religion of West Africa. When these people were taken as slaves to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries, they took their religious beliefs and practices with them. The idea of the zombie then gradually spread through the USA and Europe through migration from Haiti and the Caribbean, but also fuelled in the 20th century by fiction, the cinema, and television, like the photo below.

Interestingly, according to the Oxford dictionary, there are many more variations of how we use the word Zombie in English language:

"nowadays, zombies are so firmly ensconced in our minds that the word has gained a range of meanings. It can now also refer to:

  • a person who is very slow-witted or completely unresponsive to their surroundings;

  • a type of cocktail, made with several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice;

  • a computer that is controlled by another person without the owner’s knowledge; such computers are used for sending spam or other illicit online activities;

  • a zombie bank is one which is insolvent, but which is able to continue to operate because it has government support".


So you know the famous “Jive” dance. It is known today as it appears in "1928 in American-English, meaning "to deceive playfully," also with the noun sense "empty, misleading talk" and as the name of a style of fast, lively jazz and dance music; from African-American vernacular and denoted from African origin; it is compared to the Wolof word jev, jeu which means to "talk about someone absent, especially in a disparaging manner". According to the etymology dictionary from 1938 for "New York City African-American slang.


According to the New York Times (1995), the slang words "hep," "hip" and "hippie" have a basic sense of "aware" or "alert to what is going on." In Wolof again, the verb "hipi" means "to open one's eyes. So you can see how this has now coined the modern day term "hippie" as someone with an increased level of social conscious and awareness which puts them on a different wavelength to others.


There are two major uses of this word “bug” that is, to persistently bother or annoy , and a small insect. These two major uses are derived from West African languages, particularly the Mandingo or 'Mandinka' culture. For those of you who don’t know, as it’s my first time of really looking into the Mandingo culture, here is some background on them. They are a group people spread across parts of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. With a global population of some 11 million, the Mandinka are the best-known ethnic group of the Mande peoples, all of whom speak different dialects of the Mande language (Pruitt, 2016). The Mandinka people are known for their adherence to the Sunni tradition of Islam which is now identified as the root of their culture, they are over 99% muslim.

They say, the sense of “bug” that means annoy (as in, "this person wont stop bugging me") traces its roots to the Mandingo word “baga,” which means “to offend, annoy, harm (someone).”   “Bugal,” they point out, is the Wolof equivalent of the Mandingo “baga.” Wolof and Mandingo,(both have been highlighted in this blog post)- are the main languages in Senegal and The Gambia and belong to the same Niger-Congo language family.

The sense of bug that means any insect, which is chiefly American, is derived from the Mandingo word “baga-baga,” which means “termite, white ant, insect.” “Bugaboo,” an American English term for an object of fear or alarm in both the literal and figurative sense, is a derivative of bug. It’s noteworthy that the Liberian and black Jamaican English word for termite is “bugaboo also. So we can see that there is so much history derived from just one word and how it travels across the world and is adapted to different cultures over time - it makes it read and sound different, which I find really impressive.


So when I speak of “dig”, I am not referring to the act of digging something like a hole. Rather, this comparison denotes informal English, when you “dig” something, it means you understand, like, or appreciate it, as in, “Do you dig the meaning of this letter?” or “I really dig Cardi B's songs.” That expression began exclusively as African-American English, which used to be called “Negro Nonstandard English”(NNE).

It eventually made its way into mainstream American English, and crossed the Atlantic to Britain—and to the rest of the entire English-speaking world. The word is derived from “deg” or “dega,” which is the Wolof word for “understand, appreciate, pay attention to.”.


So ladies especially you have probably heard of the word tote when describing a luxury bag, for carrying things I.e. a tote bag. Sometimes it is also referred to as a holdall,” especially in British English). However, when used as a verb, it means to carry with a lot of effort, as in, “I helped the old man tote his bag of books.”

The word is derived from Bantu languages. It’s rendered as “tota” in Kikongo, a Bantu language spoken in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo, where it means “to pick up.” In Kimbundu, another Bantu language spoken mainly in Angola, it is rendered as “tuta” and means “to carry, load.” In Swahili, the most popular of the Bantu languages, “tuta” also means “pile up, carry.” Several variations of “tot”—and with the same meaning as the English “tote”— appear in many other Bantu languages in Cameroun.

I hope you enjoyed this thread and learned something interesting! As I mentioned it is quite difficult to access these ancient dictionaries but there are many more words in the English and Latin languages that share clear similarities with native African dialect. So I thought this one would be an interesting one ! Why not leave a comment if you know of any more words that we speak in English but seem to derive from an African language!

That's the end of the post, as usual I hope you enjoyed it and learned something new. If you haven't checked out the thread on Twitter about this yet, you can check it out here.

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- SS