On the blog, I normally zoom in on words that are hogging our headlines. This post, though, I’m stuck on a word—two actually, and a proper noun at that—that have been far too much neglected. I’m talking about Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans are struggling to survive the devastating blow of Hurricane Maria.
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.
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.
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 ∫
It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and regions along the Gulf Coast. This past month, many news organizations have been reflecting on Katrina – and lessons we’ve learned from it – as the region continues to recover and rebuild. Are there any lessons in the origin of the word hurricane?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest evidence of hurricane actually comes in two forms: furacane and haurachana. These words appear in British scholar Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of some important historical works that chronicle Spain’s exploration – er, colonization – of the Americas. One of the works, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s De orbe novo decades, gives the Spanish huracán; the other, Oviedo’s La natural hystoria de las Indias, gives furacán.
Why were there two forms? In a phonological process called debuccalization, Spanish changed certain word-initial Latin f’s to h’s around the 16th century. So, Latin’s facere (“to do”) became Spanish’s hacer; fabulari (“to say”) became hablar. But huracán/furacán aren’t from Latin, though the pair documents subsequent switching of h and f spread by the sound shift. Huracán/furacán, rather, come from the Caribbean.
Indigenous to the Caribbean were the Arawak people, including a subgroup, the Taíno, who inhabited the Greater Antilles. Spanish colonization decimated their population, but not without first taking some language, of course. In Taíno mythology, the anger of the goddess Guabancex unleashed powerful storms, or huraca’n – sometimes personified itself as an evil god of chaos, possibly derived from a powerful Mayan creator deity of wind, fire, and storms, Hurakan. Guabancex commanded Guatabá, who brought thunder and lightning, and Coatrisquie, who brought floods, forming a formidable trio that wreaked meteorological havoc.
Very sadly, I can’t pull down a dictionary of Taíno or Mayan etymology from my shelf, so I can’t speak to the deeper origins of huraca’n or Hurakan with any certainty. But the Mayan Hurakan is said to mean “one-legged,” as he was so physically manifested, while some Taíno indigenous culture and heritage websites break down huraca’n as “center of the wind” (hura, “wind”; c’an, “center”).
Whatever the particular origin of hurricane, both Hurakan and Guabancex wielded the destructive power of hurricanes, but both were also associated with creation. Hurakan helped create the world in Mayan cosmology. Some consider Guabancex the destructive face of the Taíno supreme being, complementary to the creative forces of nature.
Neither etymology nor mythology can restore New Orleans as it was before Hurricane Katrina. Nor do their insights necessarily bring any consolation. But perhaps they can remind us of some fundamental lessons of nature – human nature included – that mythology’s dualities capture so well: Out of destruction can come the chance to make new, to make better. Out of destruction can come creation.