This question comes directly from a line from the show Archer

You, through some shady deal with the Border Patrol, sent us to south Texas to capture an individual named Moreno - Mexico's most notorious coyote - Which is español for people-smuggler...And also for coyote, turns out...It's a loanword...Or is it a calque?

Daily Writing Tips gives a succinct explanation of loanwords and calques:

A loanword comes more or less “as is” from one language to another

A calque [kălk] is an expression borrowed by way of literal translation from one language into another

Outside discussions regarding this question seem to agree on coyote (the animal) being a loanword, but I'm wondering if/why it would be a calque for "people smuggler."

This same source (as above) says that coyote is a Spanish calque

It is a calque in Spanish having come from the Aztec word for trickster, cóyotl.

Does this have any bearing on whether it is a calque when passed into English?

3 Answers 3


That source is a bit suspicious, to say the least.

First off, coyōtl is not an ‘Aztec’ word, it is a Nāhuatl word. Aztec is a group of languages, of which Nāhuatl is the largest dialect subgroup; the other major subgroup is Pipil (also called Nawat), but in Pipil, a coyote is cuyut, not coyōtl—i.e., the word was borrowed specifically from Nāhuatl (Classical Nāhuatl, as it happens), not from just any Aztec language.

In Nāhuatl, in coyōtl means first and foremost ‘coyote’. As with many animal names, however, the word has some extended meanings, too, amongst them ‘trickster’, ‘mestizo’, and ‘sallow [yellowish]’. Generally not very positive words. (Compare the different mental images you get if you refer to a person as a dog, a snake, a cow, an ass, or a sheep.)

The extension in meaning happened in Nāhuatl, though, and the word was borrowed from Nāhuatl into Spanish with two meanings: ‘prairie wolf’ and ‘trickster’. Therefore, the Spanish term coyote is a loanword in both senses—it is not a calque in either sense. If, for example, in Otomi the term for the animal, miñ’o, had also been used to refer to a small child who is constantly howling, and the Spanish had borrowed that meaning, but using the by now already existing Spanish word coyote to translate it, that would have been a calque. Simply borrowing two meanings of a word from the source language, though, does not a calque make.

Since English has continued the borrowing and simply borrowed both meanings from Spanish, the word is not a calque in either sense in English, either. I am not aware, though, whether the narrowing down from ‘trickster’ to ‘human trafficker across the border from Mexico to the US’ is an independent development in English, or whether it occurred in Mexican Spanish and was then applied to the English word afterwards. If it is the latter, an argument could be made that English used the existing English word ‘coyote’ to create a calque of the Spanish word coyote—it would perhaps be a bit of a stretch, though.

  • Fantastic, the Simply borrowing two meanings of a word from the source language, though, does not a calque make bit brought a world of clarification. (And I'll remember not to make a habit of using Archerisms as my etymological resource...) Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 13:06
  • The smart money would be on the "human smuggler" meaning also having come from Mexican Spanish. The people inventing and using the word would have all been Spanish-speakers. That's where their marketing is done and business agreements are made.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 13:15
  • @T.E.D., on the other hand, the secondary meanings of ‘coyote’ (both in Spanish and English) are normally somewhat derogatory and negatively loaded—which means that it might also have been people on the US side of the border who started calling the traffickers ‘dogs’ (so to speak). Is the term actually used by the people themselves? I’ve thankfully been spared any direct interaction with the concept, so I’ve only got American TV and movies as my sources for that use of the word … Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 13:44
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - A Mexican would be a better person to ask. But I do know a couple of things: 1) Coyote amongst the Native Americans is known as a trickster, but that's kind of glorified, so its not a negative thing. 2) The only people who would have a need to invent the term on this side of the border would be enforcement agents. I highly suspect if they'd invented a term for the people-smugglers, it would have been far more derogatory, and more obviously English. No implication of cleverness would likely have been included.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 14:40
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I have heard folks of Latin American descent say that their parents were brought over by Coyotes (always with the Spanish accenting on the word). However, that isn't proof they got the word from there rather than here. They could theoretically have been translating.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 14:44

A calque is when you use native words to translate a foreign idiomatic expression literally, with the native meaning significantly different than the foreign one. For example, you might meet polish people translating "Nieraz", into English "Not once", with intended meaning of litotes for: "More than once", "Many times", you might be confused, because the english meaning is "Not even once", or "Never" which is quite opposite.

If you take a loanword with all its varied meanings though, it's just a loanword.


Translation student here, I asked my professor about it today. According to her, coyote is borrowed or, effectively a loan-word.

Using "people smuggler" —like this, in English— is a calque to the Spanish coyote (meaning people smuggler and not the animal).

I'm still not 100% sure, I'll keep looking into it, but figured I'd share what I know now!

  • Hi Metis, welcome to ELU! Did you read the other answers? Yours does not add anything new to them. Please take the Tour to familiarize yourself with this platform.
    – Joachim
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 11:11

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