Mesomerica, squirrels, and puffy leather bags: an etymological Easter basket

Did you get any chocolate bunnies or eggs in your Easter basket—or just a bunch of black jellybeans as some sort of April Fools’ prank?

Well, I’ve got you covered with plenty of timely etymological goodies for this double holiday.

jelly-beans-939754_1920.jpg
Etymologies are like a bowl of jellybeans—you enjoy them more than you think you do. Every time. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Mesomerica, squirrels, and puffy leather bags: an etymological Easter basket”

Advertisements

Etymology of the day: avocado

Today is National Avocado Day. Why don’t you observe it with a little etymology?

Via Spanish, avocado comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) ahuacatl. It means “testicle.” (Try that on some toast.) The Nahuatl language also gives us the words tomato and chocolate, as I discuss in an old post.

avocado-1712583_1920.jpg
(Pixabay)

m ∫ r ∫

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 

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.

m ∫ r ∫