Ubiquinyms ?

That thread about coffee got me wondering: just what would you call a word in common usage around the world, and essentially retaining its original form ? Not just a mere “borrowed” word, but… well, like “coffee” ? Crossing all kinds of unrelated languages, while retaining little to none of its original cultural identity - i.e. “burger” or “taco” don’t quite fit.

The bit about “ubiquinyms” was just for the thread title; surely there’s a proper linguistic term. Come to think of it, are there that many examples ? (“Police”?) A threaded list would be neat, but probably needs to go on IMHO.



Just to expand on Scarlett67’s answer:

From merriam-webster:

Thanks, Tinker. I’m kinda busy this morning!

I don’t know if there is a covering term for words like “coffee”, but I can think of a few other words that are nearly universally understood:



CD (compact disc)

plus scores of computer terms.

Cognate is too general; thanks, though. I’m thinking of the subset of cognates which includes words like coffee, police, or bordelond’s suggestions, which cross nearly every language, not just one or two (nor even a related group, such as Latinate languages…)

I was, ultimately, wondering if there was any common denominator for those useful words that ended up being adopted by folks from Afghans to Zairois, without replacing the word with one of native linguistic derivation. Are they typically from British mercantile influence or French Diplomacy ? Are they concrete objects, or concepts ? (The most recent grouping would appear to spring from Americans and the Internet, so let’s exempt those for now).

Er, it was my understanding that sometimes words like “police” are different even in related Romance languages.


French: la police
Italian: la polizia
Spanish: la guardia

I would think that the common denominator is unique-ness. There is nothing quite like coffee, and so the word for it goes along with the item. Same thing for “passport”, which is virtually the same in French, Italian, and Spanish. It’s a different thing from “identity papers”.

And I think the reason that most of these kinds of words seem to be American can be easily chalked up to our Yankee propensity for novelty. We’ve done more coming up with new things for the last 100 years than probably anybody else on the planet, and so the word that we come up with to go with the new thing goes along with it.

Although it’s worthwhile to note that not all cultures simply accept the American word for a new thing. Icelandic coins its own words for things like “telephone” and “computer”. And the French have an official body specifically dedicated to keeping the French language pure, refusing to admit to official usage such terms as “le hot dog” and “le disco”. I wonder what’s French for “CD”.

And, um, I think “cognate” IS the word you’re looking for, Jorge. The M-W definition doesn’t make this clear. When I studied Spanish in school, “cognates” were the words that were the same in English and in Spanish. “telefono”, “gasolina”, “taxi”.

Hold on a minute, Duck. Now we’re squarely upon my turf. Cognates can more properly be considered words that are genetically related, not borrowings. An example would be that the following words would be cognates of one other:

French - homme
Spanish - hombre
Italian - uomo

As cognates, these words would help establish a common ancestry - in this case, a common ancestry from Latin demonstrated by the Latin word “homo” meaning “man”.

Words like “telefono”, “gasolina”, and “taxi” (itself pretty close to universal) are NOT cognates in the traditional linguistic sense, as they do not help establish any genetic relationships between the languages that employ them. Oftentimes now, though, the word “cognate” has taken on a secondary, less specific meaning of “words which happen to be similar between different languages”. That secondary sense of “cognate” is the one to which your Spanish teacher was appealing.

Therefore, it would seem to me that the proposed “ubiquinym” is a quite different thing than a “cognate”.

My first thought upon seeing this topic is that it was a perfect question to ask the folks on “A Way With Words” (that’d be Richard Lederer & Charles Harrington Elster if you’re not familiar with the radio show on NPR/PRI). Here is a link where you can email Richard your questions.


I decided not to steal Jorge’s thunder (or words) by asking the question myself. Plus, it can probably be asked more appropriately “from the horse’s mouth.”

Thanks, scout1222 - I tried it [and gave a link back to this thread]. Let’s see what turns up. Regarding the difference in “police”, naw, it might not be as good an example as “coffee”, but it is used in a great variety of unrelated languages to my knowledge; and while “la guardia” is the proper term, it is used mainly in Spain - as opposed to, say El Salvador - and then not much in common parlance. (Perhaps Franco’s Guardia Civil left their mark, as it were.)