12 Words English Got from the Aztecs

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Planning a barbeque this weekend? You can thank the Aztecs for some of the items on your list. A typical Aztec meal from 1519, when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, would look familiar to lovers of Mexican food today: corn tortillas wrapped around beans, chili, avocado, and tomatoes. In fact, the names of several of these familiar foods come to us from Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs. But cuisine is not the only source of English words with an Aztec background.

1. Chia

“Ch-ch-ch-chia, the pottery that grows!” Remember the Chia Pet? Sorry for reminding you. Chia may be the most annoying word English got from the Aztecs.

Chia, the green “fur” that grows out of the pottery animals, is an annual plant native to Mexico, Salvia hispanica. According to Wikipedia, the word comes from the Nahuatl chian, meaning oily. The present Mexican state of Chiapas received its name from the Nahuatl "chia water" or "chia river."

2.    Coyote

The name of this wolf-like wild dog native to North America (and now a colloquial term for a smuggler of immigrants) entered English in the 18th century, from Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl coyotl:

"Saw a cayjotte, or wild dog, which in size nearly approached the wolf." — William Bullock, Six months' residence and travels in Mexico, 1824.

3.    Mesquite

Have some mesquite charcoal ready for your Memorial Day barbeque? The name for this spiny tree or shrub of the pea family, native to arid regions of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, entered English in the mid 18th century from Mexican Spanish mezquite, from Nahautl mizquitl:

Another tree which they call a Miskito: it beareth a fruite like vnto a peasecod marueilous sweete, which the wilde people gather and keepe it all the yeere, and eate it in steede of bread. — Richard Hakluyt · The principall navigations, voiages and discoveries of the English nation · 1st edition, 1589

4.    Ocelot

A wild cat, Felis pardalis, having a tawny coat marked with numerous black rings, spots and streaks, and found in forests and scrub from southern Texas to Argentina. The word comes, via French, from Nahuatl tlatlocelotl, literally "field jaguar."

5.    Peyote

The cactus Lophophora williamsii, or a hallucinogenic drug made from it, containing mescaline and used especially in some North American Indian rituals.

Origin: via Spanish peyote, from Nahuatl peyotl. From The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, published in 1913:

We endeavoured further to extend knowledge of pathological mental states by producing mental conditions nearly allied to generally recognized types of insanity... For this purpose we used the Mexican drug [printed drag] pelotte.

6.    Shack

Although this word for a roughly-built cabin or shanty sounds as if it could have come from Old English, the earliest citation for it in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1878. In 1881, the New York Times was still putting quotation marks around the word, indicating it was slang or unfamiliar. The origin is obscure, but it may come from the Mexican Spanish word jacal, from Aztec xacalli, meaning "wooden hut."

7. Tule

Californians, especially those from the Central Valley, are familiar with tule (pronounced TOO-lee) fog, the thick ground fog that makes driving through the Valley a risky proposition in late fall to winter.  Some Californians use the expression “Out in the tules” to mean the boondocks or the sticks. Fewer people know that tule refers to either of two species of bulrush abundant in low lands along riversides in California and hence, a thicket of this, or a flat tract of land in which it grows. The origin is the Nahuatl word tullin.

8.    Tomato

From French, Spanish, or Portuguese tomate, from Nahuatl tomatl.

There was also Indian pepper, beetes, Tomates, which is a great sappy and savourie graine. — José de Acosta · The naturall and morall historie of the East and West Indies (transl. Edward Grimeston) · 1st edition, 1604

9.    Avocado

This word entered English in the mid 17th century, from Nahuatl ahuactl, by way of Spanish aguacate. Because of their shape and bumpy green skin, some people call avocados “alligator pears,” but for the Aztecs, the bulging fruit brought something else to mind. According to Merriam-Webster.com, ahuacatl is short for āhuacacuahuitl, which means "testicle tree" (āhuacatl, "testicle" + cuahuitl, "tree").

10. Chili

This word for hot peppers came into English around 1660 from Spanish chile, which comes from Nahautl chilli.

"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. "A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported. – Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848

11. Guacamole

A dish of mashed avocado mixed with chopped onion, tomatoes, chili peppers, and seasoning. Origin: Latin American Spanish, from Nahuatl ahuacamolli, from ahuacatl, ‘avocado’ + molli, ‘sauce.’

12. Chocolate

"From time to time they brought [the emperor Montezuma], in cup-shaped vessels of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao, and the women served this drink to him with great reverence.”  — Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico.

The treasure rooms of Montezuma’s palace were filled not with gold, but with cacao beans, the source of chocolate. Unlike today’s bonbons, Aztec chocolatl was a bitter, hot and spicy drink made with ground corn, vanilla, and chilis. Along with golden treasure, the Spanish brought chocolate back to Europe. And the rest is delicious history.

Sources: “Salvia hispanica, Wikipedia; “Chocolate,” Oxford Bibliographies; OED [Oxford English Dictionary] Online; New Oxford American Dictionary (Second Ed.); The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fifth ed.); Merriam-Webster.com; Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la Lengua Española; Wood, Tim, The Aztecs.