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.

∫ r 


18 thoughts on “tomato, tomatl

  1. I would like to add these comments, hope you find them interesting:

    Nahuatl, like Latin, is an inflected language, so it has declinations. The –tl suffix denotes the noun form, so all Nahuatl, non-declined nouns finish in –tl. In Spanish, this suffix turned into –te.

    Cacahuatl, denotes more a bean than the Cocoa bean per se. From the Nahuatl dictionary online

    Cacahuatl: cacao bean (see Molina); and by extension, other small, hard round things such as beans, nuts, and eggs
    For example, you have tlalcacahuatl for peanuts (cacahuate in Spanish).

    Cacahuaatl – the cacao beverage word, is from from cacahua and atl (water)

    Cacahuapinolli – the cacao powder, from cacahua and pinolli (ground cereal/beans).

    As for chocolate – the same Nahuatl dictionary says:
    Chocóllatl, is made with grains of póchotl and cacáhoatl in equal quantities, and they say that it puts on extraordinary amounts of weight if it is used frequently. Both grains are mixed together, put in a vessel, and stirred with a wooden whisk until the fatty part floats and is airy. That part is then skimmed off and set aside. Added to the mixture then is a handful of the aforesaid Indian grain that has been softened. (Central Mexico, 1571–1615)
    [Source: The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández, ed. Simon Varey, transl. Rafael Chabrán, Cynthia L. Chamberlin, and Simon Varey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 109.]

    Possibly the initial element is related to “xocolia” ‘to make something bitter or sour’ and to XOCOC ‘something sour.’ The substitution of CH for X is not uncommon.
    [Source: Frances Karttunen, An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 54.]

    I couldn’t find a source for “peyote” being a form of caterpillar. Peyotl only designates the plant.

    “Abogado” (not avogado) in Spanish, means lawyer. In French you have “avocat” and Portuguese has “divogado”. I know that in French they call avocados “avocats”, but in Spanish the spelling is different. Also, in South America they call them “paltas”.


    1. “I couldn’t find a source for “peyote” being a form of caterpillar. Peyotl only designates the plant.”

      It says in the notes of the book “People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival” (Stacy B. Schaefer, Peter T. Furst)

      Anderson (Peyote, The Divine Cactus 1980) discusses the various theories of the etymology of the word, the most widely accepted being that it derives from the Nahuatl péyutl. Molina’s Dictionary gives its Spanish meaning as “capullo de seda, o de gusano” (“silk cocoon or caterpillar cocoon”). Anderson suggest the “silk” may be the woolly white tufts on the cactus. Remi Simeon’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Nahuatl ou Mexicaine (1963:336) gives the following meanings for péyutl or péyotl: “plant whose root is made into a beverage that is used in place of wine; silk worm cocoon; outer covering of the heart.”


      1. Thanks for tracking down this reference. The origins of the names of native flora and fauna are often shrouded in mystery, except where we can find roots pointing to salient features like color (as in “birch” and “bright”) or behaviors like “wolf” and proposals for roots in “danger” or “tear.” My personal favorite, though, are taboo words–where evoking the name for the animal is just too risky, as it may just conjure up its power, and so a substitute was called for.


    2. I really appreciate these very informative insights. First, I immediately corrected my mistake with “abogado.” Thanks for catching that. The English “advocate” is cognate, too.

      So, from your research, the cacao originally was more than just the cacao bean but was still considered in the semantic category of food?

      Also, can you shed some more light on “paltas,” its meaning and origin and regionalism?


      1. I know that question was aimed at laumerritt so forgive me for speaking out of turn but I read this in Chilenismos Dictionary & Phrasebook (Daniel Joelson)

        “The indigenous Quechua people, found in northern Chile have had a profound influence on Chilenismo (…) Other words have been only slightly altered, such as the Chilenismo palta. This comes from the Quechua and Aymara term phalta*, meaning avocado. Other Latin countries typically refer to avocado as aguacate.”

        *phalt’aya (I’ve also come across this spelling.)

        I had to google “palta” as unsurprisingly for me on the other side of the world in Euroland I’d never heard of the word before but Wiktionary lists “palta” as a Spanish synonym for “aguacate” in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay.


      2. I see that Mwncïod already responded to this much better than I could have. Palta is quite used in South America. In fact, many fruits and vegetables have different names in Latin America and Spain, which can be quite confusing for someone that learned Spanish in a particular country or with a teacher from a region and tries to speak with someone from another country.

        For example, peanuts, in Mexico are called “cacahuate”, but in the rest of Latin America they are called “maní”, and in Spain they’re called “cacahuete”.

        In most of South America and Spain, bananas are also called bananas, but in Mexico we call them “plátanos” and I heard a Dominican girl calling them “guineos”.


  2. Voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. Sounds a bit painful. I tired making the /t/ while acting like I was making /l/ but not sure if I did it correctly. I think I need to go to the link and here the pronunciation. So cool to learn about the origin of these words.


    1. Thanks, Deborah! I’m happy I’m not alone in my miserable failures to make the sound, but it certainly makes you appreciate the incredible diversity of language, doesn’t it?


      1. I think it is amazing that there are people who can still speak these languages. I was surprised when I first heard that there are still some Mayan people who are still speaking their language and try to keep some of their old ways. I know the indigenous people in Mexico are being discriminated against.


  3. Sorry for coming late to respond to the comments. As for “peyote”, I doubt it comes from the word for silk worm cocoon, since the silk worm is not endemic of Mexico. If the Molina reference is to Alonso de Molina’s dictionary, (1571), this might be the reason for him to equate it to the silk worm cocoon. I continued to look for meanings to “peyotl” but could only found “plant blossom” and “tokapeyotl” “tela delgada” (thin cloth) maybe that was another source of confusion for Molina. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, clothes were woven from cactii fibers.

    Also, “peyotl” might be the nahuatl adaptation of the huichol word. The “huicholes” are a different ethnic group from the Nahuatl. I know that the “huicholes” call the peyote plant “el tío” [the uncle] as they treat it as a divinity. And the special ceremony of going into the dessert to search for the peyote plant, they call it “ir a cazar el venado” – go deer hunting. So, there you go, peyotl, might have many other meanings. If I found more references I’ll come and add them here.


    1. It seems according to Edward F. Anderson’s Peyote, The Divine Cactus that the etymology of “peyote” is disputed and there as at least three separate theories with the Nahuatl ‘cocoon-silk’ just being one of them?

      The Divine Cactus (Chapter 8):
      “The actual source and meaning of the word “peiotl” is disputed and at least three theories have been proposed to explain its etymology. Several Europeans have suggested that the term ‘peyote’ came from the Aztec word ‘pepeyoni’ or ‘pepeyon’ which means ‘to excite’. A derived word from this is ‘peyona-nic’ meaning ‘to stimulate’ or ‘activate’

      A similar proposal was made by V. A. Reko and extensively discussed by Richard Evans Schultes; they suggested that the term “peyote” came from the different Aztec word “pi-youtli” meaning (a small plant with narcotic action.)…”

      I too also had a look at Alonso de Molina’s Vocabulario en lengua Castellana y Mexicana (1571) and saw the dictionary entries for “peyotl” (I’ve kept the original Spanish archaic spellings and ‘long s’ ſ ):

      1. Tela del coraçon. peyotl
      2. Tela delgadiſsima de qualquier coſa. tocapeyotl
      3. Tela de granada. granada peyotl.

      I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker but I imagined these to mean:

      1. “Cloth of the heart” = ‘heart sac’ meaning either the pericardium (serous membrane surrounding the heart allowing it to contract.) or the endocardium that lines the interior of the heart.
      2. “Thin cloth” as in the figurative ‘skin’ use of ‘tela’ akin to ‘tela de hueuo’ (cloth of an egg) the inner lining of an egg; the eggshell membrane or ‘tela de la leche’ (skin on milk)
      3. “Cloth of pomegranate” (?) I’m not sure if this is supposed to mean what we call in English ‘bloom’ (vello, pelusa de frutas) the delicate, powdery coating on certain growing or newly-gathered fruits or leaves, as on grapes, plums, etc.


      1. I never fail to appreciate the true (and impressive) digging you do on these posts, Mwncïod. I tend to favor parsimony and thus think the Spanish gloss of “tela” is compelling, given such a silky membrane must have been well-encountered in the indigenous culture’s efforts to sustenance.


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