Everyday Quechua: Coke, jerky, & DNA

The Mashed Radish will be off for the next week or so, as my wife and I will be in South America. One of the best parts of travel, of course, is encountering a culture so far from your own. But for the obsessive etymologist in me, travel is all about encountering words that turn out to be much closer to home.

We’ll be spending some time in Peru and Chile, so I thought I’d give a little attention to Quechuan, a language family that once extended throughout the Andes and claims up to 10 million speakers today. Like we saw with Nahuatl, the story of Quechua is a story of empires: it reached great heights under the Incan Empire, toppled under the Spanish Empire, and persists, even if in its own small way, in today’s current English-language empire.

For, nothing says Quechua like a bottle of Coke and a stick of beef jerky–and DNA.

"Guanine." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Guanine.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Quechua Borrowings

Primarily loaned from Spanish, English has borrowed a number of words from Quechua languages, particularly from Peruvian dialects. Unsurprisingly, the borrowings center on native flora and fauna, as languages tend borrow “exotic items,” given the need to name such new concepts (The Oxford Companion to the English Language). But some of these borrowings do lead us down a couple of rabbit holes.

First, we have animals, and the record shows there was little need to mess with a good thing:

  • Condor (Quechua, cuntur)
  • Guanaco (huanaco)
  • Llama (llama)
  • Puma (puma)
  • Vicuna (wikuna)

We might associate camelids with the Middle East, but, it turns out, they originated in North America and spread from there. Via another indigenous language, Aymara, the alpaca is another camelid, with the core of the word probably related to the Quechua p’akko, referring to a yellow-red color.

And animals need habitat, like the pampas, the Spanish plural rendering of Quechua pampa, for “plain,” “land,” or “ground” (Oxford English Dictionary, [OED]). 

Second, animals give us animal products:

  • Jerky is from the Spanish charqui, via Quechua ccharqui “dried flesh, unsalted, in long strips (OED)
  • Guano is from Quechua huana, “dung”

Don’t hold your nose at guano: It’s the core of guanine, one of the bases behind, oh, I don’t know, in a little something call DNA. The chemical was first extracted from sea-bird guano. Life is truly a messy business.

Third, plants pull off a few surprises:

  • Quinine is ultimately from Quechua kina, “bark.” Historically, it was added to tonic water to ward off malaria, not to exacerbate your gin headache. The exact history is convoluted, but Spanish borrowed it as quina, referring to cinchona bark, where quinine comes from.
  • Coca, Quechua cuca, is the plant from which cocaine is derived, itself an original ingredient in Coca-Cola. Today, the word Coke is truly global.
  • Quinoa is not from your local health food store but from Quechua kínuwa.

The secret of both quinine and cocaine? They are alkaloids, as noted chemically in their –ine suffixes, just like in guanine.

Finally, we have culture:

  • The incredible, recording-keeping cords, quipu, via Quechua khipu, “knot”
  • Your comfortable but sophisticated chinos may be from the Quechua čina, “female servant” or “animal.” Spanish picked it up as chino, referring either to “toasted” or a “child of one white parent, one Indian,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s unclear which is first, but color is the key.
  • And perhaps most interesting from an etymological perspective is the good-measure lagniappe, whose story is best told over at Lexicon Valley

Huq p’unchaykama, and to my US. readers, a Happy Thanksgiving in the meantime.

m ∫ r ∫


As pumpkin spice yields to gingerbread, Christmas is approaching, which means lists: wish lists, holiday party guest lists, Santa’s list of the naughty and nice, and best-of and year-end lists, trailed, of course, by their runners-up on shortlists.

To that effect, Oxford Dictionaries has already unveiled its winner for my favorite year-end tradition, the Word of the Year. This year, they crowned vape, short for “vaporize” or “vapor” (or “vapour,” depending on where you are writing) and referring to electronic cigarettes. The word really picked up steam this year, if you study the case they make for it.

Speaking of “steam,” where does vapor come from?


Passing into English from the French, the word vape has not drifted too far its root in the Latin vapor, meaning “steam” or “heat” (especially from the sun). Today, it may get more scientific use, but it’s first attested around 1374 in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

As man, brid, best, fisshe, herbe, and greene tree / The feele in tymes with vapour eterne.

Here, The is referring to, essentially, Love, deified, but we’ll find a way back to that.

Poetry, though, like many etymologies, can wax metaphorical. So, too, with vapor. Related to vapor is vapid, whose earliest meanings were “flat,” as in beverages. Latin has vapidus–”flat” or “spoiled”–related to vappa, “sour wine,” having lost its vapor, its spirits, so we surmise. (A secondary meaning of “brat” for vappa is also cited. Think “spoiled.”)

Some, like Eric Partridge, see life in a connection to the Latin fatuus, “foolish,” or “tasteless” when describing food. The word gives English fatuous. As Latin was evolving into the Romance languages, however, this fatuus may have been confused with vapidus to yield the French adjective fade, variously denoting “pale,” “dull,” “tasteless,” or “vapid.” English picked up the word, too, originally describing faded colors. The verb in both French and then English came quickly thereafter.


Our deeper knowledge of vapor has indeed faded. It might originate in the Proto-Indo-European *kwēpwhich the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots proposes means “smoke,” cook,” “move violently,” or “be agitated.” Walter Skeat defines the root as “to reek” or “to breathe forth.” In terms of cognates, Greek has kapnós for smoke; various Lithuanian words for “breath,” “smell,” and “perfume” are also cited.

The root word certainly brings evaporation to my mind, but it also may have yielded concupiscencecovet, and cupid, which, in all their biblical and mythological valences, go back to the Latin cupere. Boiling over in desire, the verb means “to long for” or “be eager for”–just like so many are for a deep draw from their vape.

m ∫ r ∫

drubbing & shellacking

It’s an American pastime: The party of the president takes a big hit in the midterm elections and the electorate awaits how the president will describe it the next day. Most colorfully, in 2010 Obama described Democratic losses as a “shellacking,” while in 2006, Bush described his party’s as a “thumpin’.” And unlike Christmas, the word drubbing only comes once every two years, as pundits take to the bandwidth and column width for their analysis.

Whatever the characterization, its a now a tradition as American as apple pie, but two of those words, drubbing and shellacking, have travelled far–etymologically, that is–from grains of sand to the amber waves of grain.

"Gramophone." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Gramophone.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Today, a drubbing is primarily a metaphorical “beating,” but historically it referred to real blows dealt in punishment with a cudgel, especially on the soles of the feet, which is a form of corporal punishment known as the bastinado. I know midterms are referenda on incumbents, but jeez, thank goodness etymology isn’t a literal business. Except for poor old Senator Charles Sumner.

To my ears, drub sounds like Germanic stock, so, as we recently saw in the word candy, it’s a nice surprise that our best evidence points to an Arabic origin. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in Thomas Herbert’s 1634 travel writings, A Relation of Some Yeares Trauaile, Begunne Anno 1626. into Afrique and the Greater Asia.

Behind drub, according to this etymological route, is the Arabic ḑaraba, meaning much the same, “to beat,” especially “to bastinado,” yielding a verbal noun ḑarb, a “beating” or a “blow.” Turkish or North African variations, perhaps including a simple metathesis, may have utlimately yielded the English iteration.

Wiktionary, however, puts forth an alternative etymology. It suggests drub is from a Kentish dialectical form going back to the Old English drepan, “to strike,” from the Proto-Indo-European *dhrebh-, “to crush” or “grind to pieces.”


Shellacking, too, takes us to the Middle East, but it doesn’t just stop there.

Shellac is a compound of shell and lac, entering English as a 1713 translation of the French laque en écailles, “lac in thin plates.” Lac, related to lacquer and a variant, lake, is a dark-red resin secreted and encrusted on trees in India, among other locations, by a female bug, Kerria laccia.The resin was scraped from the tree bark and processed as a dye in the East. Later, it was dissolved in alcohol particularly for use in gramophone records and as a varnish in the West.

It is probably as a varnish that we get the sense of shellacking as a “beating.” Shellac was used as a finish for furniture and other woodcrafts, so to be shellacked was “to be finished” (and in a period of US slang, “wasted” or “plastered”). And so we can see its figurative leap.

Lac probably entered the West from the Persian lak or Arabic lakk, passed down from the Hindi lākh. The Hindi, in turn, is from the Sanskrit lākshā, ultimately meaning “red dye.” It could also name the insect or plant wherefrom the dye was obtained. So greatly do the insects number on the trees, apparently, that their swarm may have yielded a term for “100,000,” as in a Hindi lākh of rupees–a great number of rupees.  The connection between this term and lākshā is not certain, however.

The Sanskrit lākshā may have had an earlier form, rākshāwhich could point to a Proto-Indo-European *reg, “dye” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). In Sanskrit, the root also plucked out raga, a kind of melodic basis for improvisation in Indian classical music. Rather synesthestically, the sense of color connected with “dye” was transferred to a notion of color and mood associated with sound.

In Greek, *reg- became associated with rugs or blankets, eventually giving English the rather useful term regolith: that loose layer of rock, soil, and dust covering on the surfaces of bodies. I’m sure the scientists who landed the Philae space probe on Comet 67P were very mindful of the regolith.

Rolling with the Punches

Shellacking is colorful term with a colorful root, but perhaps raga reminds us of the importance of sound here. The real power of shellacking and drubbing does not lie in their origins or histories. It’s in their sound: Drubbing and shellacking sound imitative and suggestive of the hits they deliver, yet they pack a punch without thrashing too hard. They are forceful without being final, giving the drubbed and shellacked a way to acknowledge they lost without losing face, as if getting up from the ground and dusting themselves off.

m ∫ r ∫ 

spices: guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

Today, for my 100th post, I am honored to share a guest post I did for the OxfordWords blog on the website for Oxford Dictionaries,  run, of course, by Oxford University Press (OUP).

Focusing on the origin of spice names, my piece is titled “Salaries, dragons, and musk: rooting around in the spice rack.” You might know the OUP operation for—oh, I don’t know—a little something called the Oxford English Dictionary, without which the Mashed Radish really wouldn’t be possible.

Check it out, and be sure to check out their blog in general. It always has edifying and engaging content, not mention excellent writing. I recently rocked out to a piece, “How the saxophone got its name: an A-Z of instruments.”

m ∫ r ∫


Though the 2014 midterm results may be casting a week-long shadow, Veterans Day is a time when the left and right come together to honor the men and women who have served in the US military. Perhaps the word veteran calls up an elder who fought in World War II. Or maybe it marshals up images of younger soldiers coming back from Iraq. The etymology of veteran indeed proves the word is very much about age – and some rather unwarlike animals.

“Bellwether.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Veteran is a relative veteran in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in 1509, when, much as now, the word named an old or experienced soldier.

The word marched into England from France and from Italy yet before that: Latin has veterānus, a “veteran,” from vetus, meaning “old,” “aged,” or “long-standing.” Some forms of the word refer to “tradition,” “antiquity,” or “ancient forebears.” Others indicate the “slyness” or “expertise” that comes with age. A verbal form of vetus, moreover, is ultimately behind inveterate, which aged into English with a nefarious “obstinacy.”

By the end of the 1500s, the OED cites veteran‘s general reference to “long experience in any office or position,” which we see today especially with respect to politicians and broadcasters, if my ear is any judge.

Young & Old

The Latin vetus has a well-vetted origin in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *wet-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) defines as a “year.” The sense, then, of vetus is “having many years,” as the AHD offers. This root parented meanings of “year” in Sanskrit, Greek, and Hittite. In Balto-Slavic tongues, it lived on as “old.”

Today, the elderly, not to mention veterans themselves, may not get the kind of attention we lavish on the young. But *wet– is not without its youth obsession, if you will. The root also produced Latin’s vitulus, a “calf,” “young bull,” or “foal”–these we often refer to as “yearlings.” Vitulus is from a derived form of *wet-, *wetelos, meaning “yearling” and underscoring the significance of livestock domestication to PIE culture.

Speaking of calves, veal is also from vitulus; related is vellum, parchment made from the skin of calves. In a particularly tasty etymological twist, so might be that home of Rome, Italy, which the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World glosses as “land of young cattle.” It’s no surprise, then, Italy is known for its leather and saltimbocca.

Old cattle, however, are driving the job title so many youth dream to have: a vet, in the animal, not Vietnam, sense, of course. Vet is shortened from veterinarian or veterinary, which in its earliest uses denoted the medical treatment of domestic animals, especially cattle (OED). A vet sounds much better than a cattle doctor, no?

Behind vet is the Latin adjective veterinārius, describing “beasts of burden.” As Walter Skeat explains, the Latin term “probably meant, originally, an old animal, one that was no longer fit for anything but carrying burdens…” (Too bad this adjective may also describe all too well our cultural treatment of our elderly and our veterans.) Eric Partridge suggests the opposite, though, stating the adjective describes a domestic quadruped “old enough, fit, to carry burdens.” The things we, young and old, carry.

Leaders & Followers

Alas, we can never roam far from politics in language. Veteran is no exception, and I’m not referring to the recent Veterans Affairs scandal.

With jockeying for the 2016 race for the White House underway in all but name, we will soon enough be busy with “vetting” vice presidential candidates. As nicely treated in 2008 piece by Juliet Lapidos, to vet is from the self-same noun shortened from veterinarian. It initially referred to treating horses  before races.

Pollsters and pundits will also soon be descending on the so-called bellwether states, whose voting is seen to predict the electoral winner. Originally, a bellwether was “the leading sheep of a flock, on whose neck a bell is hung” (OED).  The bell would signal the sheep’s location as well as lead along its wooly comrades. The term, of course, has general currency in its sense of “leader.”

Bellwether is a compound, you may have guessed, joining bell and wether. The latter is from an Old English word for a “male sheep,” particularly a castrated one. (It remains to be seen whether Iowa Senator-elect will be a bellwether–or just continue making wethers of hogs.)

Sheep and bells may seem as far as possible from what veteran may stand for, but, wether, too, can thank the PIE *wet-, via the Proto-Germanic *wetruz, “yearling.”

But leadership? Now that is something a veteran in any field of station can stand in attention to.

m ∫ r ∫


Running up to the election, it’s all about the political polls. On election day, it’s about who shows up to the polls. Leaving the polls, we take exit polls. The following morning, we analyze the polls. All these polls are enough to make us lose our…polls?

"Tadpole." Doodle by me.
“Tadpole.” Doodle by me.


In Old English, a poll referred to the head, especially the top of the head of persons or animals where hair grows. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this usage as early as 1300, although it does note, with a terrifying ambiguity, a reference to an obscure “kind of penal instrument of restraint.”

Over the ensuing decades, the sense of poll was transferred from the “top of the head” to the whole person, particularly as would be tallied in, say, a headcount–a count “by poll.” In 1625, the OED attests poll as the “counting of voters” for voice votes or by show of hands. We witness further transference to the “result of voting” with a citation in the New York Weekly Journal in October, 1736:

The Polls were so near, that a Scrutiny was demanded and had.

Later in the century, polls began to signify where votes were cast. It’s not until 1902 that polls named opinion surveys.

Surveying the “Poll”

So, poll-sick or poll-mad by election day? Blame the Dutch.

Our best guest as the origin of poll is evidenced by the Middle Dutch pol, meaning “top” or “summit,” with other Germanic cognates like Middle Low German’s pollfor the “top” of plants. English may have borrowed the word or it may have developed in line, perhaps like the Swedish pull or Danish puld for “crown of the head,” as Skeat provides.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds that poll in Old English lives on in place names, possibly meaning “hill,” and thus the original may have been “hill.”

Ernest Klein and Eric Partridge hold out for a connection to the Latin bulla, “bubble,” connected to the rather prolific (and likely imitative) Proto-Indo-European roots for “to swell,” like *bhel-, which we saw before in Super Bowl and fool.


We count some “heads” in a few other surprising places. The poleax is a weapon with an ax on its poll, or head, though the unrelated pole is certainly an influence. Heads roll in a pollard, a tree whose tops have been pruned. Earlier, the word referred to deers that have cast their antlers, the OED notes.

Poll was also a verb, as pollard may have suggested, in case you recognize polled. Originally, it referred to cutting off hair; later, heads.

But what really turns my head is tadpole. This word is hatched from toad and poll, a “toad-head,” due to its top-heavy development. In some regions, it is known, delightfully enough, as a pollywog, joining that same poll with wiggle.

The connection couldn’t be better: The 2016 campaign for US President kicks off today, for all intents and purposes, and we will all soon squirm with polls like so many tadpoles in yet another political life cycle.

m ∫ r ∫