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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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

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.

Coyote

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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turkey

Fast Mash

  • Turkey first appears as turkey-cock and turkey-hen in 1541, originally referring to the sub-Saharan guinea fowl and later confused with the North American bird
  • Both the guinea fowl and turkey made it to English-speaking peoples by way of Turkish traders, called “turkey merchants,” who controlled much of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages during the Ottoman empire
  • 16th-century Spanish conquistadors brought the turkey from North America (where the Aztecs had long before domesticated the bird in Mexico) to these Turkish hands

Last week, I looked into the etymology of burger for another guest post for LexicolatryTwo all-beef patties of American contradiction, the origin of burger is messy–just like a good burger should be.

But it’s probably not burgers on the minds or in the stomachs of many of my American readers as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. Not turkey burgers, not Thanksgiving burgers–the bird’s the word.

And words, like food, are a tasty way to slice history.

Turkey

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh.

Well, sort of.

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking Turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for Turkey? Turkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

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