tomato, tomatl

If it weren’t for Nahuatl, what would we be eating?

As we saw in a recent post on amnesty and coyote, the latter word originates in Nahuatl. Still spoken by about 1.5 million people and a member of the extensive Uto-Aztecan language family native to the Southwest US and Mexico, Nahuatl actually comprises a large variety of dialects. The one spoken in Tenochtitlan served as a prestige dialect for the Aztec Empire. Spanish, of course, displaced much of Nahuatl, but borrowed words from it which later made their way into English.

“Borrowed,” “displaced”–that’s a nice way of putting it, huh? But if it weren’t for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521, we may not be saying tomatoavocado, and chocolate, among others. (Sarcasm intended; the Mashed Radish does not endorse colonialism.)

And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2012 worldwide, we produced over 160,000,000 tons of tomatoes, 4,000,000 tons of avocados, and 5,000,000 tons of cocoa beans. For English speakers, that’s a whole of lot of tomatoesavocados, and chocolate.

I say tomato, you say tomatl. Doodle by me.
I say tomato, you say toma–Yeah, that /tl/ is tricky. Doodle by me.

Tomato, Avocado, & Chocolate

Tomato ultimately derives from the Nahuatl tomatl. (I can’t link directly to it, but if you clink the link and search for tomatl, click the audio symbol to hear a pronunciation. I recommend this for the following words, too.) The Spanish picked up it up as tomate, later fashioned to tomato, where the word (and fruit, though not without controversy) spread throughout Europe and later to the United States. Um, back to regions in the United States.

Avocado is originally from the Nahuatl ahuacatl. Spanish made some aguacate out of it, whose resemblance to abogado, as in “lawyer,” helped shape its modern form. Ahuacatl can also mean “testicle.” Think about it.

And chocolate comes from chocolatl, referring to food made from cacao, which, as the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes, Europeans may have confused with cacaua-atl, a drink made from cacao beans, which cacao (and its corrupted form, cocoa) derives from the Nahautl cacahuatl. Indeed, a chocolate was originally a kind of drink. Hot chocolate retains this sense. 

Tongue Twister

Approximately 8 million indigenous peoples died (largely due to disease contracted from the Europeans) during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, but now there are more than 1,500 Chipotles around the world. Chipotle–another loanword from Nahuatl, whose phoneme /tl/ gives so many of us trouble.

For /tl/ has no equivalent in English (and in many other languages). Technically, it is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative, and to the English-speaking ear, this subtle /tl/ sort of sounds like you are saying a /t/ but with your tongue in the position of saying an /l/. (I’ll leave you to wiping the spit off your screen.) Your ear may want to approximate it as the –tch sound in watch, but that is a very gross approximation indeed, as the sounds are produced quite differently in the mouth.

In many dialects, I should note, the /tl/ is reduced either to a /t/ or /l/–and, for all intents and purposes, non-native speakers will treat the sound like the second syllable of the English little.

In Nahuatl, chipotle may be a compound of chili–yes, we get that from Nahuatl, too–and poctli, “to smoke,” explaining this smoke-dried jalapeño chili pepper. And with your Chipotle burrito you may like guacamole, from the Nahuatl ahuacamolli, joining ahuacatl (“avocado”) and molli, “sauce,” literally “something ground up.” Oh yeah: mole is a Spanish derivative.

Other Nahuatl derivatives include tamalepeyote (from a word for “caterpillar”), mescaljicama, and ocelot.

Empires on Your Plate

Cultural contact, whether through the bargain of trade or, too often, the brawn of war, is a major vehicle of language change, particularly on the lexical level. When people encounter new people, they encounter new ideas, goods, and objects, especially food and technology–phenomena and concepts a language previously did not a have a word for, and therefore was heretofore not lexicalized, as we say, in the tongue. And so it was for Spanish and Nahuatl, and so it is for languages in contact, in conflict.

Empires rise. Empires meet. Empires fall. Empires fade. Spanish and Nahuatl alike. But it’s amazing to me to think of some of these great historic cultures live on in the most everyday–humble, invisible in their taken-for-grantedness–of ways: a can of tomato sauce, a chocolate bar, a side of guacamole.

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rockets & missiles

Rockets and missiles have been too much with us.  Where do the words come from?


Originally referring to “fireworks,” rocket derives from the Italian rocchetto–passing into English from the French roquette in the early 1600s–where it referred to something far gentler and more productive: a “bobbin,” a spool around which yarn is wound. The word is a diminutive form of rocca, a “distaff,” a textile technology similar to the “bobbin” in that it is a staff for holding flax, wool, or other fibers for spinning. The propulsive rocket, then, is named from its resemblance to the cylindrical shape of the distaff.

“Distaff” by Pearson Scott Foresman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That puts a whole new spin on yarn bombs, doesn’t it?

Mostly likely, the Italian rocchetto was a loanword from a Germanic source. Old Norse has rokkr and Old High German rocko, giving English rock (not that rock, but like rocket, a “distaff”), whose threads leads us back to a Germanic root, *rukkon. Proto-Indo-Europeanists posit a broader Germanic and Celtic root in *ruk-, meaning “fabric” and “spun yarn.”

I think we should put seamstresses and tailors in charge of geopolitics.

Related are ratchet (from the French racquet, “head of a lance”) as well as rocambole (a kind of garlic, shallot, or leek, via the Germanic rocko) and rochet (from French, naming the white “over-tunic” for priests’  choir dress). Rochet‘s clerical associations lead us to the frock, whose unknown origin a few have placed in *ruk-. 


Now principally a noun, missile came into English in the mid-1600s as an adjective, meaning “capable of being thrown.” It was launched ultimately from Latin, missilis, signifying much the same, from the past participial form–missus–of the verb “to send,” mittere. It could also mean “let go” or “throw.”

The derivatives of this verb in English are plentiful. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots lists the following (and keep in mind most have additional, derivational forms, like commission or unremitting):

Mass, mess, missile, mission, missive, admit, Christmas, commit, compromise, demit, dismiss, emit, intermit, intromit, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, omit, permit, premise, pretermit, promise, remit, submit, surmise, transmit.

Get the message? That’s another.

We’re not really sure where mittere comes from. An older form may be smitterewhich has compelled a few etymologists to propose a Proto-Indo-European root, *(s)meit-, “to throw” or “send.”

In his work, Jordan Shipley saw this *(s)meit- also as the source of smite and smegma and immaculate, as the origin of mittere and commented:

The first sense seems to have been ‘to throw,’ as cow dung at a wall, to dry for fuel. I have seen freight cars at a siding in India with their south sides completely  covered with spats of drying dung.

There’s no conclusive evidence for Shipley’s etymology, but, hey, I’ll take yarn bombs and flung dung over rockets and missiles any day.

Except for space rockets. I think we’re all secretly–hell, openly–space nerds.

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amnesty & coyote

Two other words central to the language of the US border crisis debate are amnesty and coyote. Regardless of your feelings about the implications of their meanings, they certainly make me continually appreciate the diversity of our “immigrant” English tongue.


Amnesty–a government’s official forgiveness of offenses–came into English in the late 1500s, French via Latin, from the Greek, amnestos, literally, “not remembering” or “forgetfulness (of wrongs),” as Skeat glosses it. The Greek joins a– (a negation prefix, or not”) and mnestos, “remembrance.” You might recognize these elements in amnesia. Mnestos, whose core element you also see in mnemonic, ultimately comes from a Proto-Indo-European root, *men, or “mind” and “thought,” which deserves its own entry.


An Aztec language is making its first appearance on the Mashed Radish. In the mid 1700s, English borrowed coyote (which, in immigration discourse, refers to a human smuggler, if you aren’t familiar) from Mexican Spanish, which in turn borrowed it from an indigenous Mesoamerican language in the Uto-Aztecan language family, Nahuatl, which still claims 1.5 million speakers to this day. (Talk about immigration, er, colonization, right?)

In Nahuatl, coyotl referred to the “coyote,” or the “prairie dog” as some will gloss it. Some Mesoamerican scholars will cite coyotl meanings of “trickster,” given the animal’s place in indigenous mythology, but I imagine that this meaning would have come along secondarily.  Others cite a yellowish color and perhaps the animal’s name indeed came after a salient shade of its pelt. Coyotes are often solitary creatures,  but coyote is not a solitary loanword, as we’ll see in an upcoming discussion of other Aztec borrowings.

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Last post, we looked into the origins of border, which turned up many planks and ships. But what of immigration?


The homeland of immigration is the Latin verb, migrare, “to move” or “change residence.” Immigrate features the prefix im-, a form of in-, “into,” assimilated to the root’s m to ease pronunciation. Immigrate‘s counterpart, emigrate, uses e-, “out of,” to make its meaning.

The Latin migrare has a yet more distant motherland in that rich earth of Proto-Indo-European’s *mei-. According the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *mei– meant “to change, go, move; with derivatives referring to the exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom or law.” In the case of immigration, *mei– took some extra bags with it to become, essentially, *meigw-.

We’ve actually encountered *mei before on the Mashed Radish in the surprising case of mad. As the American Heritage Dictionary will have you recall, Old English is hypothesized to have had *gemædan, “to make insane or foolish,” from the Germanic *ga-maid-az, “changed (for the worse)” or “abnormal.” This is then traced back to *mei-.

Immigrant Tongue

In many ways, English is an immigrant language. It both welcomes other languages and, to put it mildly, welcomes itself in others.

At its core, English is a Germanic language, but over half of its vocabulary is from Latin, much of it directly from the French, particularly during the Middle English period, which Deputy Chief Editor of the OED studies in his Borrowed Words.  But everything from Arabic to Celtic to Navajo to Spanish to Yiddish have made their great presences known on our magnificent bastard tongue, as linguist John McWhorter delightfully calls it in his work of the same name.

But we can’t really speak about English as much as we should speak about World English. According to Ethnologue, over 330 million people speak English as their first language, while over 500 million speak it as a second language, adapting it in wondrous and beautiful ways to fit their cultural and conceptual needs.  There isn’t English: there are Englishes.

Immigration may be an apt metaphor for English, but so it is for language itself. Yes, the story of English is a wildly successful one, but that is due to historical power and patterns, not inherent superiority. (Ask French and Latin about their ultimate fortunes as seemingly irrevocable global languages.) English is adapted and adaptable not because of its Englishness, but because of its language-ness. Language is adapted and adaptable because human purposes are. Because the human experience is a messy one, a busy one, a complex one, a changing one, whether battling the elements on an ancient savannah or battling traffic on the commute to work. We are in constant contact with others, with environments, with concepts, and our language acts as mediator, as migrator, if you will. And thus, in so many ways, the aptest metaphor is the root of immigration–*mei-, change, particularly in that sense of exchange.

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“Border crisis” may be the noun phrase of the American moment. Not too long ago, I looked at the origin of crisis in a different border battle. But the word border itself may be having something of its own etymological crisis.


Border, attested in the geographic sense in the 1500s, is first documented in the English of the 14th century, traced to the French bordure, referring to an “edge,” frequently of a shield. Indeed, bordure still refers to the edge of shield in heraldry. The French term is widespread in the Romance languages and may be from a Romanic root *bordus.

This is where the borders get blurred, because border may abut the same origin as board.

Board is from the Old English bord. This bord had two meanings: 1) a plank, or a material board; and 2) the side of a ship, an edge. These words and their origins get confusing and confused. They may ultimately be the same word; they may not. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology casts doubt on a common origin, while the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds them in the same source.

From the first, we get things like cardboard and cupboardTables were made of boards, where food was eaten, hence room and board. Important people gather around tables for important meetings, and thus we have school board and the boardroom. Thus, board meaning table, food, or a certain collection of people functions as form of metonymy, which has graced us with its presence quite a bit lately (cf. gavel and sekw).  Seaboard retains the meaning of “edge,” and I couldn’t have typed this without my keyboard.

“Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard / To give the poor dog a bone”: from the Sarah Catherine Martin’s “The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog,” first published in England in 1805. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This board may have built bordello, from the French bordel, a “small hut,” from borde, a kind of wooden “hovel.” The word, obviously, came to refer to a brothel.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology takes this board back to a Germanic base, *borðam, formed on *breð-. The root meaning is glossed as “board.”

From the second board, we get things like starboard and to board a planeStarboard has nothing to do with stars, as the first element is related to the word steerLarboard had to walk the plank for port; its first element may be connected to load. This board goes back to a Germanic base, *borðaz.

This Germanic *borðaz may have taken up as the Romanic *bordus we saw before. French developed bord (also, bort) for “side of a ship” but also as “plank,” confusing the already confused Old English bord, which could mean “side of a ship” and “plank.” Eesh. This is partly why it’s hard to sort the boards out.


One side of the border are those, like the Oxford scholars, who keep the boards separate. On the other, we have scholars of the American Heritage Dictionary who join them way back in the Proto-Indo-European *bherdh-, “to cut.”

Both board and border, as American Heritage surveys the territory, were descended from the root’s Germanic heir, *burdam, which is proposed to mean “plank,” “board,” and “table,” returning us right back to our drawing board.  Planks, boards, tables, ship sides–all cut from wood. Edges, borders–the cutting off point, so to speak.

Board may play its games, but bordersas well see all too often, whether in North American, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, are certainly no board games.

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From Wimbledon to SCOTUS, court has been busy this past week. And while both courts are arguably the most prestigious on their respective, well, courts, the word court is humbler in its origin.


The English court comes from the Old French, cort, which was naming royal residences by the 12th century. It, in turn, originates in the Latin cohors, contracted to cors. This cohors had a few meanings, including a “retinue,” or, much more specifically, a military unit of 600 men, equivalent to 3 maniples, 6 centuries, or a tenth of a legion, if you care for martial mathematics.

This meaning survives in the English cohort, now often used in educational contexts.

Monarchy and might? Still pretty prestigious.

 But how about “barnyard” and other areas where livestock were kept? For, at the heart of court is “yard.” The Proto-Indo-European root is *gher-, a fertile base meaning “to grasp” or “enclose.”

In Latin’s cohors, we see *gher in the word’s second element: co-, “together,” and hors, from hortusmeaning “garden.” Perhaps you can see the connection to horticulture. So, cohors literally denotes “something enclosed together,” yielding both an enclosure, like a “barnyard,” or people grouped together, like a “retinue” of soldiers.

The French language of the court gave English: courtesy, originally the kind of behavior expected at the court; curtsy, originally a gender-neutral display of respect at court formed off a variant of courtesycourtierfrom a verb “to frequent a court”; courtesan, via the Italian cortigiana, a “woman of the court,” though also “prostitute”; and to court, from an expression for paying homage at a court. And the name Curtis is essentially courteous. Courtney, however, is unrelated.

Cortege, from the Italianand curtilage are yet more derivatives.

In the Middle Ages, courts took on their judicial senses; in the Renaissance, their sports, originally referring to tennis.


As I mentioned, *gher was, aptly, a productive root.

In the Germanic branch of Indo-European, *gher yielded English’s girdgirt, and girthas well as garden and the later component of kindergartenAsgard, mythological home to some very powerful Norse gods, would be nothing without it. (We saw the origin of the first part, As-, in the post on Oscar.)

In the Balto-Slavic branch, *gher has helped to name cities, as we see in the Russian Novogorod and Leningrad or the Serbo-Croatian Belgrade.

Old English had geard, which became and meant “yard” (no relation to the measurement), as well as figures in the latter half of orchardHangar, as in an airplane hangar, may be cognate, too.

Speaking of latter halves, yard keeps busy in English compounds. More specifically, as the so-called “head” of many compounds:

We have backyards and dooryardsscrapyards and junkyardslumberyards and shipyards, farmyards and stockyards. We have schoolyards. We have graveyards. We have vineyards, featuring some real shortening of vowelsWe also have common noun phrases like front yard and railroad yard

And my personal favorite? Courtyard. Which,  if you will, is an etymological pleonasm–as *gher-gher, a redundant expression.

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Independence Day celebrates the United States’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain, in case you’ve never heard of this country called the United States) on July 4, 1776.  Celebrants mark the day with parades, barbecues, fireworks–and, if you’re me, etymologies, because nothing says “stars and stripes” quite like a good word origin.

I, for one, am going to declare independence independent from all its morphological bunting. That is, if we strip down to its root, what do we find?

First, here, in- means “not,” so we are left with “not dependence.” Then we have -ence, a suffix that forms abstract nouns from verbs, leaving us with “the condition of being dependent.” It varies with the French -ance (Latin, –entia), with French shifting Latin’s e to an a, though the endings are doing the same work. English has a fanfare of words like appearance in some cases and word like existence in other cases, all depending, shall I say, on which words were altered back from the French spelling to conform with the Latin spelling in Modern English’s early days.

So, now we are looking at depend, which, again, is Latin via French. The Latin dependēre, literally meaning “to hang down,” with de- denoting “down.”  At this point, we have Latin’s pendēre, “to hang,” cousin to pendere, “to weigh,” depending on the length of the vowel. (The bar above the e in pendēre is called a “macron,” signifying, essentially, a long vowel.)

The root, then, is pendwhich is hanging down from the Proto-Indo-European (s)pen-, “to draw, stretch, spin.” Down Germanic lines, the root gave English spin and span and a whole host of related words. Down the Italic line, with some vowel changes and some suffixes to the root, we get words like pound and ponderous. Of course, Latin’s very own pend- (in both forms) produces everything from appendix to compensate to pensive to stipend. Indeed, metaphor is having an impressive fireworks display with all that it has done with this root.

And then we have spangle, as in that star-spangled banner, the American flag and title of the US national anthem. (I could see the word becoming fossilized in the phrase; it’s certainly the only context I ever hear or see it in.)


The star-spangled banner said to have inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem and, later, US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Anyways, spangled is “decorated with spangles,” little pieces of glittering metal or the decorative like. The word most likely comes from the Middle Dutch spange, a “clasp” or “brooch,” with the notion of ornament as the connecting sense. Etymologists aren’t sure, but this spange may point back to a Germanic base, *spango-, a derivative of (s)pen-.

For my compatriots, Happy Fourth. But we all know what we’re really celebrating is that the holiday falls on a Friday. And nothing says “America” like a 3-day weekend.


American political institutions love to sit.

Committees have chairs. Congressional chambers have seats. Courts have benches. Presidents have, well, desks.

They also love metonymy, that “figure of speech in which a thing is represented by something closely associated with it” (Drury, The Poetry Dictionary). Thus we refer to those chairs, seats, benches, and desks as stand-ins–sit-ins?–for the person, position, and power symbolically residing in them. (We saw metonymy at work in scarlet.)

One of the better known governmental metonyms–the gavel–has been making headlines, as the U.S. Supreme Court pounded the gavel on its term this year with some major decisions.  Technically, the nine Justices aren’t themselves pounding the gavel. According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, that’s left to the court’s Crier, who bangs it right at 10am so all rise for the black robes entering the courtroom on days when they hear oral arguments.

The gavel, of course, is used in many a official assembly, and in many a metaphor. Gavels get grabbed. Gavels get passed. Gavels get brought down, gavel-to-gavel.

Night Court’s gavel-wielder, Judge Harry Stone. Image courtesy

So, where does this gavel come from?


The etymology of this ceremonial, attention-getting wooden mallet is ultimately unknown.

Ernest Weekley makes a connection to a German dialectical use of gaffel in the Lower Rhine. He glosses it as “brotherhood” and “friendly society,” seeing a cognate to the English give. Indeed, a now obsolete meaning of the word gavel is “tribute” or “rent.” This gavel is given by the Old English gafol, a “tribute,” indeed related to give via its Anglo-Saxon ancestor, giefan. The usage lives on essentially in gavelkind, a concept Weekley nicely elucidates: a “system” primarily in the county of Kent in England, “by which property is divided equally instead of going to the eldest son” but originally a “form of tenure.”

The Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology finds the word was first wielded in the 19th century (American dictionaries cite it in 1805) and primarily so in the United States, but otherwise offers no opinion.

Eric Partridge suggests gavel may be “akin to kevel, a hammer for stone-shaping or -breaking, itself [of obscure origin] but [probably] akin to [nautical] kevel, a strong cleat or timber for fasting a vessel’s heavy lines.” He goes on to root this nautical tool’s origin in the Latin clavis, or “key.” Clavicle is a descendant. Word historians give their assent to the gavel’s historical use among masons, so there may something to kevel’s case.  

Others have proposed a line to javelin (cf. Welsh gafl, “fork”) from the Old French for “spear.” French also had javelle, a sort of loose heap of grains, linked to a hypothetical Latin *gabella, possibly from capulus, a “hilt” or “handle,” though primarily “coffin.” This diminutive noun is rooted in capere, “to seize.” And folk etymologies have cited gabble. Indeed, there are some connections, but they extremely tenuous, as the semantic and sound changes are suspect.

It seems the jury is out on gavel.

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