There are many words in English that are borrowed from other languages, but acquire a much more specific meaning along the way.

For example, salsa in Spanish simply means "sauce", and could be equally well applied to Hollandaise sauce or soy sauce. But in (US) English, salsa always refers to a particular style of spicy sauce, usually based on tomatoes, onions and chili peppers, that is common in (pseudo-)Mexican cuisine.

Likewise, raisin is French for "grape", but in English always means a dried grape.

(Actually, most of the examples that come to my mind involve food.)

  • Does this phenomenon have a name? Where could I read more about it?
  • Are there examples of this happening to English words borrowed by other languages?
  • 2
    I don’t agree that salsa uniquely means pico de gallo in English, but there may be some who misunderstand it to be such.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 1:26
  • 3
    Here in Australia raisins are the large dried grapes. The smaller ones are sultanas.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 1:27
  • @Chris How odd! For me, raisins are from colored grapes and sultanas from white ones. A sultana is a yellow raisin, but I would not say that a raisin is a brown sultana.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 1:33
  • An 18th-century French borrowing from English is redingote (which the English borrowed back in the French spelling a little later). See this college thesis for some interesting German borrowings. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 2:04
  • 1
    This is really a linguistics phenomenon that may generally occur in any language. (linguisticsSE must be better qualified, therefore, to answer this question.) To the extent it relates to English, I've posted a short answer to say what I believe.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 4:43

5 Answers 5


This is an example of the general linguistic phenomenon of borrowing with semantic narrowing.

"Semantic narrowing" occurs when a word shifts in meaning to restrict itself to more specific circumstances. So while in Spanish salsa means 'sauce', in English we use the word in a more restricted sense. This restriction is influenced by the sociolinguistic context in which the word is most encountered, which has happened to be Mexican-influenced cuisine in the USA. Similarly for raisin, which was borrowed in a culinary context; culinary terms in English are strongly influenced by French.

But this phenomenon is widespread and not limited to borrowings. Narrowing occurs often even when a word is not borrowed; examples include OE deor 'animal' > ModE deer 'cervid', and Eng corn 'grain' > USA corn 'Zea mays'.

And of course semantic widening also occurs, and for similar reasons. Examples of this are OE docga 'a specific breed of canine' > ModE dog 'any canis familiaris', and Kleenex 'trademarked brand of facial tissue' > kleenex 'any facial tissue'.

  • 1
    Your sequence "Eng corn 'grain' > USA corn 'maize'" is not expressed clearly enough. In my experience, most people in the central US think of sorghum maize (or milo maize) upon hearing the word maize. What you say of the narrowing of meaning of corn may be true, but mention of maize perhaps confuses rather than clarifies. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 19:12
  • @jwapat Thanks; that's not a usage I was familiar with so I've updated with the species instead. Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 20:13

This is really a linguistics phenomenon that may generally occur in any language. (linguisticsSE must be better qualified, therefore, to answer this question.)

There are some interesting factors in language development.
1. When no suitable word exists in the native language for a very specific object, a related word from a foreign language is loaned for the purpose. No other changes take place.
2. A new foreign object is introduced to a culture under its own native name. The local language adopts it along with its original name.
3. Consider this: A demographic that traditionally uses unburnt clay panels for roofing calls them, say, Xyzes in its native language. They are introduced to burnt clay panels and told that they are called tiles. Thereafter, for them, the traditional ones are xyzes and those made of burnt clay are tiles, not realizing that technically both are very much tiles. There must a technical term for this phenomenon.

English has a tradition of absorbing foreign words from various sources, under various circumstances, and no single definition can fit to describe how the transformation of a foreign word's usage and popular meaning ends-up in English in course of time. There are instances where the borrowed word has a meaning that is unrelated to its original sense.


The words are loanwords; the phenomenon is borrowing.

When they enter the English language, the meaning has to adapt to the existing words around it, and arguably they become new English words. Bouef, for example, lost the 'animal' meaning as the existing 'cow' already had that meaning, and so in English 'beef' refers only to the meat.

Find a list of loanwords here

It does work the other way, and English words find their way into other languages. Japanese, for example, has adopted a surprising number of English words.


I can give a whole bunch of English borrow-words acquiring a specific meaning in Polish.

  • Tablet, or Pad - a tablet computer.
  • Notebook - a Notebook computer.
  • Event - an professionally organized event (specific party).
  • Radiator - heat removal radiator (as opposed to a heating device).
  • Bar - a pub that serves food.
  • Terminal - an airport terminal.
  • Polar - Polar fleece.
  • Rower (read rover) - Bicycle. (interestingly, Bicykl is the antique kind of bicycle with enormous front wheel).
  • Kombajn (read combine) - a combine harvester.
  • Design - industrial/artistic (professional) design.
  • Monitor - a computer monitor
  • Kanwa (read canva(s)) - a painting canvas
  • Western - a Wild West movie.
  • Hit - a musical/popculture hit.
  • Clip - a video clip.
  • Fan - an enthusiast
  • Bajpas (read bypass) - a heart artery bypass.
  • strit (read straight) - a straight in a game of Poker (interestingly, the name of the game is the same, but other sets of cards have native polish names, e.g. four of a kind is "Kareta", "a royal carriage".)
  • Poncz (read punch) - a strong liquor based solution used to infuse baked goods (not good for drinking!)
  • Token - an electronic or virtual token.
  • Fitness - a fitness club.
  • Dancing - a disco dancing party.
  • Spam - unwanted mail.
  • Mail - e-mail.

Note these appear only in these specific meanings, while their fundamental/generic English meanings have completely different, native Polish translations.


Apparently these derived terms are called loanwords. Another example: sombrero. Loanwords is the generic term for all adopted words, so not only ones that have taken on a specific meaning, but loanwords may change meaning, spelling, or pronunciation when adopted.

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