Taíno is an Arawakan language spoken by the Taíno, Ciboney, Lucayan, and Yamaye peoples of what is now Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and across the Caribbean. It was the first Indigenous language encountered by European colonizers, so it’s no surprise that many Taíno words made it into European languages. These same words, sometimes changed up a bit with time, are still present in the English and/or Spanish languages. You would be surprised to know the number of words you say every day that are actually Taíno in origin.
This is why we have to learn our history and recognize how much of our culture is in fact Indigenous. We have to work to keep Indigenous languages alive and healthy (so many are extinct, in danger of extinction, and many are currently being revived), to encourage Latinxs to learn these languages in order to connect with our Indigenous roots and identities. Here are 14 Taíno words you actually already know. Pass on the knowledge!
The first Taíno word you know is Boricua (a.k.a. Borinqueño or Borincano). It is a term that Puerto Ricans use to describe themselves and it comes from the Taíno word Borike’n (a.k.a Borinquen), which means “the great land of the valiant and noble Lord.”
A canoe is a boat that is pointed on both sides and is propelled by someone paddling with a paddle. But did you know that this word actually comes from the Taíno language? Canoe comes from the Taíno word canoa, which described boats used in the area where Columbus arrived to. He noted the word.
Barbecue may be a big thing in places like Texas and Kansas City, but the name and delicious practice are all Indigenous/ Caribbean in origin. The Arawaks used the word barabicu, meaning “sacred fire pit,” to describe how they cooked foods over a fire. The word barabicu became barbacoa, when then became barbecue and BBQ.
The cozy hammock, perfect for chillin’ on a lazy sunny summer day, is another thing that we can thank the Taíno people for. They used hammocks, called hamacas, to sleep in. The term means “stretch of cloth” in Haitian Arawak. We still use this exact term in Spanish to describe these leisurely beds.
Next time you go to the grocery store, you’ll know that there are different fruits that you’ll see there that have Taino names. One such fruit is the papaya. Its name is Taino, and the fruit was brought to the area by Taino ancestors.
Once you start to identify Spanish words that are actually Indigenous in origin, you will see how they stand out among other Spanish terms. Like the word iguana. It too is a word that is Taíno in origin and comes from the Taíno word iwana.
There are a few words that we are taught that are American Indian in origin. Like the term maize or maiz. Used to describe corn, the word maize comes from the Taíno words mahisi or mahis, which come from the Proto-Arawak term mariki.
Before it was part of a Proyecto Uno song that had us running to the dancefloor (shout out to “El Tiburon!”), we used tiburon to describe a shark, of course. The word actually comes from the Taíno language and it’s one of the Taíno words that we absorbed into Spanish, intact.
The story behind the word hurricane is a cool one. The word to describe a tropical storm with winds over 75 mph comes from the Spanish word huracan, which is Taíno in origin. Hurakán (a.k.a. Juracan in Spanish, phonetically) was who the Taíno, Island Carib, and other Caribbean Arawak people believed to be the god of the storm. Other sources say it means god of evil. There are those who also trace the name Huracan to the Mayan god of the storm/wind/fire and part of creation.
The cassava (a.k.a yuca) was a big crop for the Taíno people. They used it to make bread and it is said that when Columbus and the Spanish explorers saw that this flatbread didn’t mold or go stale, they took the cassava root with them around the continent.
We use the word tuna to describe a type of fish but it is also a Spanish word to describe prickly pear and its fruit. This term tuna comes from the same word in Taíno.
Colibri is the Spanish word for the hummingbird. The term comes from the Taíno Colibri; the Taino people regarded the hummingbird as a sacred symbol.
The Spanish tobacco and English tobacco are both words that come from Taíno. They are derived from the Taíno word tabako, which was used to describe the dried leaves rolled up into a tube-shaped cigar, as well as a Y-shaped pipe used to inhale snuff powder during ceremonies.
The Spanish word for soursop comes from the Taíno word wanaban. Now you know that you know at least 14 words in the Indigenous Taíno language. How cool is that?