Words like taxi, tea, bikini, OK, and pizza are a type of “universal” language due to their highly frequent borrowings among populations around the planet. Such widespread adoption is the result of cultural contact, colonialism, war, trade, and popular media. The global spread began happening centuries ago. Below are four “universal” words and the histories of their intrepid march around the globe.
This culture-specific word is written and pronounced in a variety of ways around the world: bǐsà-bǐng, biitza, pitstsa, pizā and pijā.
The precursor of modern pizza was likely focaccia, a flatbread known to the Romans as panis focacius. The word pizza was first documented in A.D. 997 in Gaeta and successively in different parts of Central and Southern Italy. The introduction of a savory tomato sauce came centuries later after the red fruit from the Americas was introduced.
In 16th-century Naples, the flatbread pizza was known as a dish for poor people and was sold as street food and in pizzerias. Over the next two centuries, the dish gained popularity and became a tourist attraction as visitors ventured into the poorer areas of Naples to visit the pizzerias and sample the local specialties.
Pizza made its appearance in the United States with the arrival of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. Italian-American pizzerias flourished in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, and St. Louis. Following World War II, returning veterans who were introduced to Italy’s native cuisine abroad flocked to the American restaurants and entrepreneurs eyed the market for expansion.
By the 1960s, pizza consumption exploded in the U.S. Parallel to their fast-food brethren, pizza chains created a wildly popular dining market that included Shakey’s Pizza (1954), Pizza Hut (1958), and Little Ceasars (1959). Chilled and frozen pizzas sold in supermarkets made pizza readily available nationwide.
In the latter part of the 20th century, American pizza chains expanded into world markets. The recipes were adopted and adapted to local tastes with preferred toppings. Pizza Hut®, for example, has 18,703 restaurants around the globe. In Japan, eel and squid are popular toppings, Pakistanis love their curry pizza, and Norwegians eat the most pizza in the world! Once the provenance of the Italian poor, pizza has become one of the most recognized and popular dishes worldwide.
This word is recognized in more than eight widely-spoken languages. Though its discovery is the fodder of various legends, coffee originated in the Arabic qahwah. There is evidence of coffee drinking from the early 15th century in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen (kingdom of Sheba) and spread to Mecca and Medina. By the 16th century, it reached the rest of the Middle East, South India, Persia, Turkey, India, and northern Africa. Coffee then spread to the Balkans, Italy, the rest of Europe, and Southeast Asia.
The word “coffee” entered the English language in 1582 via the Dutch koffie. The French pronounce the word café, Germans say kaffee, in Italian it’s caffè, and in Japanese, コーヒー (kōhī). From iced coffee in Portugal to the spiced coffee of Morocco, each culture has adapted the drink to their own distinctive cultural tastes. Major American chains such as Starbucks can be found in 76 countries around the globe.
The UK’s London Underground opened in 1863 with locomotive trains. In 1890, it became the world’s first urban railway “system” when electric trains began operating on its deep-level tube lines. In France, the Paris Métro opened in 1900. It was one of the first to use the term “metro,” an abbreviation from its original operating company’s name, “Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris.
This is a digitized and colorized film of Germany’s Wuppertal Schwebebahn shot in 1902. Where the train itself appears so recognizably “modern,” the background is shockingly old world!
Today, “metro” has the same meaning and almost the same pronunciation in Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Finnish, Basque, French, English, and Hungarian. There are more than 178 transportation systems globally with an average of 168 million daily passengers. From subway to above-ground railways, metro systems have become a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape worldwide.
The word shampoo entered the English language from the Indian subcontinent during the colonial era. It is dated to 1762 and was derived from Hindi chāmpo, from the Sanskrit root chapati, meaning “to press, knead, or soothe.”
The people of India would historically boil saponin-rich soapberries with a mixture of herbs and fruits, then strain it for an effective, lathery soap. This product would clean hair and was part of a massage and bathing routine known as chāmpo.
When early colonial traders in India returned to Europe, they introduced these newly-acquired bathing habits and the hair treatment they called “shampoo.” The first “champooi,” or Indian health spa and massage, was opened in England in 1814 by Sake Dean Mahomed, an Indian traveler, surgeon, and entrepreneur. Mr. Mahomed was also appointed as shampooing surgeon to both King George IV and William IV.
During the early stages of its adoption in Europe, hair stylists boiled shaved soap in water and added herbs to create a shampoo treatment that gave the hair shine and fragrance. Commercially-made shampoo wasn’t available until the turn of the 20th century when companies like Canthrox and Rexall offered shampoo products at local druggists. In 1927, liquid shampoo was created by German inventor Hans Schwarzkopf in Berlin. The first shampoo using synthetic surfactants instead of soap was Proctor & Gamble’s Drene brand in the 1930s.
Today, shampoo is an 85-billion dollar health and beauty market crossing every continent and nearly every nation on the planet. The word “shampoo” is also found in most major languages including French, Albanian, Corsican, Danish, Dutch, Finish, German, Italian, and Japanese. In Spanish, it’s champu, and in Korean, syampu.
I’ll finish this post with one more world map.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in what makes a word autological, the everyday language of anatomy, or why we use the word dumbbells!
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