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.

m ∫ r ∫

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 ∫