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.

m ∫ r ∫

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