Potato, batata

You say potato, etymologists say batata. It’s National Potato Day in Ireland, so let’s dig up the roots of the beloved spud.


English cultivates its potato from the Spanish patata, a variant form of batata. But the batata is actually the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), completely unrelated to what we commonly refer to as the potato.

That’s a lot of potatoes.

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing batata to Spain – and into the Spanish language – at the end of the 15th century. The crop and word thereafter spread throughout Europe and, thanks to Portuguese traders, to many parts of Africa and Asia.

Batatas, or sweet potatoes. Image by Troy Stoi courtesy of www.freeimages.com.

The word batata comes from an indigenous Central American language, perhaps from Haitian Taíno, the language of the self-same people who inhabited much of the pre-Columbian Caribbean and Florida. Taíno also gives English the word hurricane, a word much on the minds of many along the Southeast coast today.

In English, the earliest record of potato comes from English naval commander and notorious slave-trader John Hawkins in his 1565 travel writings: “These potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.” Batata, meanwhile, is attested in translation by the 1570s, noted as a “victaill of muche substaunce.”

Then, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought back what we now familiarly refer to as the potato (Solanum tuberosum) from the Peruvian Andes, where it was known as papa. Papa is a word for “potato” in Quechuan, a language also ultimately responsible for the words jerky, guanine, and Coke.

Potatoes share an etymological root with batatas, but not a botanical one. Unlike batatas, potatoes are technically stem, not root, vegetables. Image by Nadia Arai courtesy of www.freeimages.com

This plant especially proliferated in England, Ireland, and the US. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard discussed “Virginia potatoes,” thanks to the vegetable’s erroneous associations with Sir Walter Raleigh, who, according to tradition, first planted the tuber in Ireland. Sir Francis Drake and that same John Hawkins also compete for this title; the actual, direct source is unclear .

In the early record, it can be hard to tell whether writers are referring to the batata or the potato. But potato took over as the generic term for such tubers by the early 1700s, with the distinguishing sweet potato emerging by the mid-1700s.

Potato or batata, the English language definitely didn’t call the whole thing off.

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Four-leaf etymologies: slew

A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.

This happened to me for the word slew.

I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.

The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.

So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.

But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.


Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”

Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”

I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.

The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.

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Fast Mash

  • Tornado is first attested as ternado in the late 16th-c. 
  • First referred to tropical Atlantic thunderstorms; sense of rotating funnel clouds came about in 1700-1800s 
  • Probably a bad borrowing by navigators/seamen/travelers from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, related to English thunder)
  • Later forms flipped the and the r, probably under the influence of Spanish tornar (turn, related to English turn)

One thing is certain: A tornado wreaked destruction on Moore, OK just over a week ago. As I have been following the news of such tremendous loss and damage, of such profound recovery and resilience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of tornado, trivial and petty as my musings seem in the face of the disaster. It turns out, no pun intended, that its origin isn’t quite  so certain.


In 1589, as documented by the OED, Richard Hakluyt—an English geographer, writer, and ardent champion of English colonial expansion, particularly in North America—wrote in his Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation*:

The 4.day we had terrible thunder and lightning, with exceeding great gusts of raine called Ternados.

The word took a number of different forms over the next centuries, including tornathoturnado, and tournatho, settling into its current spelling by the 1800s. And, the OED notes, navigators used the word to refer to torrential, gusty tropical thunderstorms in the Atlantic. In the 17th-c., these navigators used the term to name the entire season in which such storms were common, although this usage is now obsolete,  though we do say “tornado season” in the States.

Overtime, the rain and thunder elements receded while that of rotation and wind ascended. The turn, so to speak, seems to take place in the early 1600s. The OED documents the following from Samuel Purchas, an English cleric and complier of travel accounts, in his Pilgrimes (1625):

We met with winds which the Mariners call The Turnadoes, so variable and vncertaine, that sometime within the space of one houre, all the two and thirtie seuerall winds will blow. These winds were accompanied with much thunder and lightning, and with extreme rayne.

The OED observes that the rise of spellings using u and -or– seems to correspond with usages that emphasize the storm’s windy whirling. Indeed, in the early 1700s, the word was naming rotatory storms in West Africa and, in the late 1800s, the narrow-pathed funnel-clouds we know all too well in the Midwest and South today.

It fascinates me to end how new experiences, new concepts, new contact—with different lands and different people—necessitates new language. But seldom do we invent new terms out of thin air. We steal, we borrow, we appropriate, we adapt. And English has proven itself particularly adept at this.

So, where was tornado ultimately taken from?

While -ado certainly betokens Spanish or Portuguese (where it functions as the past participle ending of certain verbs, from the Latin -atus; cf. French -ade, as in paradecrusade, and many others), neither tornado nor any its previous forms shows up in those languages. So, etymologists posit a few things:

  1. The word was a “mangled borrowing” from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, from the verb tronar and Latin tonare, to thunder. English thunder is related.).
  2. The o‘s and r‘s got flipped, a little thing called metathesis (pretty and *purty, ask and *aks)
  3. This flipping was influenced by Spanish tornar, which means to turn, return. This verb is from Latin, tornare, to turn on a lathe, from tornus, a lathe. English turn is related.

Yes, I totally had to look up what, exactly, a lathe is. And this completes a full turn: tornadoes destroy, lathes  help rebuild.

*Speaking of whirlwinds, the full title of  Hakluyt’s afore-quoted book is:

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth

And you thought all those subtitles so in vogue today were bad. In all fairness, though, I’d venture that  writers of those early texts didn’t conceive of such cumbersome titles as titles, but previews or outlines. Perhaps proto-blurbs or proto-tables of contents. Interesting plural #ftw. Self-reference #ftw.

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