African words and phrases that have gone global

Francis Akhalbey November 29, 2018
Hakuna Matata

There are some very popular African phrases/words and words of African origin that are universally accepted, considered “English” and are featured in some of the most popular dictionaries out there.

In light of this, Face2Face Africa has compiled some of these popular African words and phrases and their origins. The definition of all the words and phrases except “Ubuntu” are sourced from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Check them out below and feel free to share with us other African words or phrases that weren’t included!

1. Hakuna Matata

Meaning: There are no problems : don’t worry about it.

Origin: Swahili phrase

2. Kwashiorkor

Meaning: Severe malnutrition in infants and children especially of impoverished regions caused by a diet low in protein

Origin: Ga language (Ghana)

3. Buckra

Meaning: Chiefly South, often disparaging : a white person or a person of predominantly white ancestry —used chiefly by African-Americans.

Origin: Efik and Ibibio language (Nigeria)

4. Banjo

Meaning: A musical instrument with a drumlike body, a fretted neck, and usually four or five strings which may be plucked or strummed.

Origin: Bantu

5. Basenji

Meaning: Any of a breed of small curly-tailed dogs of African origin that do not bark.

Origin: Lingala (DRC/ Republic of Congo)

6. Gerenuk

Meaning: A large-eyed antelope (Litocranius walleri) of eastern Africa with a long neck and limbs.

Origin: Somali

7. Juju

Meaning: A fetish, charm, or amulet of West African peoples

Origin: Yoruba (Nigeria)

8. Kalimba

Meaning: An African thumb piano derived from the zanza.

Origin: Bantu

9. Kwanzaa

Meaning: An African American cultural festival held from December 26 to January 1.

Origin: Swahili

10. Impala

Meaning: A large brownish antelope (Aepyceros melampus) of southeastern Africa that in the male has slender curved horns with ridges.

Origin: Zulu

11. Mamba

Meaning: Any of several chiefly arboreal venomous green or black elapid snakes (genus Dendroaspis) of sub-Saharan Africa.

Origin: Zulu/Swahili

12. Marimba

Meaning: A xylophone of southern Africa and Central America with resonators beneath each bar.

Origin: Bantu

13.Mumbo Jumbo

Meaning: An object of superstitious homage and fear. | A complicated often ritualistic observance with elaborate trappings. | complicated activity or language usually intended to obscure and confuse. | Unnecessarily involved and incomprehensible language : GIBBERISH. | Language, behavior, or beliefs based on superstition.

Origin: West Africa

14. Mojo

Meaning: A magic spell, hex, or charm.

Origin: Fulani

15. Obeah

Meaning: A system of belief among blacks chiefly of the British West Indies and the Guianas that is characterized by the use of magic ritual to ward off misfortune or to cause harm.

Origin: West Africa

16. Okra

Meaning: A tall annual herb (Abelmoschus esculentus) of the mallow family that is cultivated for its mucilaginous green pods used especially in soups or stews.

Origin: Igbo language (Nigeria)

17. Safari

Meaning: The caravan and equipment of a hunting expedition especially in eastern Africa. |Journey or Exhibition.

Origin: Swahili

18. Tsetse fly

Meaning: Any of several dipteran flies (genus Glossina) that occur in Africa south of the Sahara and include vectors of human and animal trypanosomes.

Origin of Tsetse: Tswana language (Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia)

19. Voodoo/Voudou

Meaning: A religion that is derived from African polytheism and ancestor worship and is practiced chiefly in Haiti.

Origin: Ewe and Fon language (Ghana, Togo, Benin)

20. Zombie

Meaning: A will-less and speechless human (as in voodoo belief and in fictional stories) held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated. | The supernatural power that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body. | A person held to resemble the so-called walking dead. | A person markedly strange in appearance or behavior. | A mixed drink made of several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice.

Origin: Bantu

21. Ubuntu

Meaning: A quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity. (Oxford Dictionary)

Origin: Xhosa and Zulu

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: November 29, 2018


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