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14 English Words Derived From The Nahuatl Language

What is Nahuatl?

From crowd-pleasers like guacamole and tamales to cold-weather comfort foods like pozole and atole, Mexican culture has gifted us with specially adored dishes. At a superficial glance, it may seem that the origins of these words are Spanish. On the contrary, such words (along with many of their ingredients) predate Spanish contact and come from the Indigenous language of Nahuatl [ nah-waht-l ]. Several of our English words, such as coyote and chocolate, are also rooted in this particular native language of Mexico.

Classical Nahuatl was the primary language spoken throughout the Triple Alliance, or the three city-states of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan that comprised what is today inaccurately referred to as the Aztec Empire. After the Triple Alliance succumbed to Spanish invasion, greatly abetted by foreign diseases and domestic allies that saw a power vacuum, Nahuatl along with other Indigenous languages would be heavily stigmatized from general use and, with colonialism, find many of its words Hispanicized (e.g. xītomatl became tomate, or tomato in English).

Today, Modern Nahuatl is one of 68 recognized Indigenous languages of Mexico. It is also still spoken by over 1.7 million people in Mexico in addition to smaller numbers of speakers in the US and across Central America.

A word on pronunciation: the letter X is pronounced as a sh, so the name of the Mexica people, the founders of the city-state of Tenochtitlán, is pronounced [ meh-shi-kah ]. The consonant group of tl is rolled together at the ending of a word, so Nahuatl sounds very close to “nah-waht” with just a ghost of an L sound rounding out the end.

chocolate

Let’s start with a word we all love—chocolate! While most people might associate this quintessential sweet with Swiss chocolatiers, the cacao bean is from the Americas. However, the origin of the Spanish word (from which the English word derives) is highly contested. While popularly believed to derive from xocoatl (a combination of the words bitter and water), the most etymologically sound origin of chocolate is chihcōlātl. Since cacao was processed into a drink (and a highly regulated one at that), chihcōlātl refers specifically to the process through which the beverage was made. Cacao beans were pulverized; water, and flavoring agents (vanilla, chile, honey) were added; and the whole mixture was beaten into a frothy, relatively bitter liquid. It was typically served cold or at room temperature. Much like bread and wine in Christian observances, chocolate drinks were reserved for nobility and special religious ceremonies.

Modern Mexican hot chocolate still includes a brush of cinnamon and notes of chile spices.

 

There’s never a wrong time to satisfy your metaphorical sweet tooth by learning some chocolate vocabulary.

avocado

Here’s a name that’s undergone a lot of evolution over the years. Avocado’s Spanish-language predecessor is aguacate, which originated from the word ahuacatl. Now, a common misconception is that ahuacatl is Nahuatl for “testicle” (the actual word is ātetl). The name of the fruit predates the metaphorical use, much like how nuts was an English word for a popular protein nutrient before referring to any particular anatomy.

That said, ahuacatl comes from the Proto-Nahuan (predecessor language of Nahuatl) word pāwatl, referring to large tree species. This is the underpinning word for Nahuatl’s oak tree (āhuacuahuitl) and avocado tree (āhuacacuahuitl). The word avocado entered the English language around 1690–1700.

Because of their green, bumpy skin, avocados were also previously called “alligator pear” in English.

guacamole

Now that we’ve cleared up the history of avocado, perhaps guacamole seems less unsettling. Ahuacatl combines with the Nahuatl word for sauce, molli, to form āhuacamōlli or simply, “avocado sauce.” The dish is popularly served with onions, tomatoes, chiles, and lime. Guacamole is noted as entering English from Mexican Spanish circa 1915–1920.

In the US, it’s estimated that 104.9 million pounds of avocado are sold in preparation for guacamole leading up to Super Bowl Sunday.

coyote

Whether you live in a rural area or a big city, chances are you’ve seen—or at least heard the distinct cackle—of coyotes in the area. Incredibly adaptable to nearly any environment, the coyote is a buffy-gray, wolflike canid of North and Central America, distinguished from the wolf by its relatively small size and its slender build, large ears, and narrow muzzle.

The word coyote is derived from the Nahuatl root word coyotl. The Spanish pronunciation coyote led to the English variant of coyote, which was picked up around 1825–1835.

If it’s any indicator that coyotes have been living in human environments for ages, Frida Kahlo’s birthplace, Coyoacán in Mexico, has its name rooted in coyotl. Literally meaning “place of the coyotes,” the locale was clearly known for coyotes wandering through.

Like humans, coyotes are one of the few animal species that demonstrate fissure-fusion behavior, meaning they can live independently or with a pack.

 

An abundance of words come from Spanish as well. Read about 16 of them now.

atole

It’s getting around that time of year! Derived from the Classical Nahuatl word ātōlli, atole is a warm, sweet drink made from cornmeal and typically served in the winter time. Atole may also be accompanied with vanilla or cinnamon for flavor. When blended with chocolate, atole becomes another familiar drink called champurrado.

Atole is also a traditional beverage found on ofrendas (altars) during Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) observances.

mescal

Known for its smoky flavor, mescal is “an intoxicating beverage distilled from the fermented juice of certain species of agave.” The maguey plant, from which mescal is distilled, was held sacred among Nahua peoples. During pre-Hispanic times, alcoholic drinks were heavily restricted to only religious observances, elite classes, and revered elders. Public drunkenness for anyone else could be punishable by death.

The word mescal comes from the Nahuatl mexcalli, which combines metl and ixcalli. Together these words mean “oven-cooked agave,” a reference to how the drink is prepared. Today, mescal and its variant beverage tequila (which is made from one specific type of agave), are both popular exports from Mexico. While mescal refers to the drink, mescalero refers to one who makes the drink.

quetzal

With its bright emerald and ruby plumage, the quetzal is a striking bird that inhabits Central and South America. Its name comes from the Nahuatl word quetzalli, which refers to its long, extravagant tailfeathers.

Considering that quetzal are a fairly reclusive species, their bright feathers are especially prized and reserved for use in ceremonial regalia. Accordingly, quetzalli is also used as an adjective to mean that something is precious or valuable.

The deity Quetzalcoatl, whose name means “feathered serpent,” was often depicted with quetzal feathers, signifying his divine status.

chile

Chile peppers are often recognized as the pod of any of several species of Capsicum, typically having a spicy flavor to them. They’re also from Nahuatl! First recorded in English in 1655–1665, the chile is derived from its Nahuatl predecessor of chīlli.

The Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex (ancient manuscripts written in Nahuatl) also document being held over smoking chile peppers as a punishment used on children who were caught misbehaving.

One word of caution: chiles can add the right amount of kick to any dish, but just be sure not to touch your eyes after chopping them!

chipotle

Chipotle specifically refers to “a mature jalapeño pepper that is smoked until dried, used whole or ground into a spice, especially in Mexican cooking.” The original Nahuatl pronunciation was chīlpōctli, a combination of the words chilli (chile) and pōctli (smoke). Chipotle was first recorded in English around 1920–1925. The savory, smokey flavor of chipotle is one of tastiest seasonings for a grilled dish.

 

Because of the importance of Indigenous languages and cultures, many choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Read more about why.

tomato

Most people recognize that tomatoes are a food from the Americas, but perhaps fewer realize just how many words existed to refer to the different varieties of tomatoes. The everyday big, red or orange-yellow tomatoes you’d find at the grocery market were called xītomatl. This transitioned into the Spanish jitomate, which over time dropped the first syllable to become tomate.

Smaller tomato varieties then took on Spanish diminutives; for instance, tomatillo refers to the little (diminutive ending of -illo) green tomatoes that are covered in a husk and used in a number of salsas.

Once believed to have aphrodisiac properties, another name for a tomato was a “love apple.”

atlatl

Often recognized as a “spear-thrower,” an atlatl is a “rigid device for increasing the speed and distance of a spear when thrown, usually a flat wooden stick with a handhold and a peg or socket to accommodate the butt end of the spear.” It is also just as frequently mispronounced as “at-tul-lat-tul.” An English-language pronunciation closer to the original Nahuatl is [ aht-laht-l ]. The use of atlatl in English was first recorded in 1870. The atlatl is considered a major technological feat in terms of hunting with increased range and strength.

tamales

Perhaps almost always said in the plural—because why would you not want more than one??—the singular of tamales in Spanish is tamal. That said, the singular in its original Nahuatl is tamalli. Tamales were typically made with cornmeal and sometimes lard to make a dough called masa. Seasonings could include chiles, honey, and achiote. The dough was then filled with beans, toasted squash seeds, meat, greens, and egg yolks. Bundled into a corn husk, the dough would then be steamed or cooked over a comal (a grill).

With a tidy corn husk wrapping for protection, tamales were easily portable, making them excellent for travelers, merchants, farmworkers, and anyone else who may happen to be away from home for an extended period. Tamales were also not a class-regulated food, being enjoyed by both noble and commoner classes alike. While Mexican tamales are typically wrapped in a corn husk, many cultures throughout Latin America have their own variant on tamales, including wrapping them in banana leaves.

pozole

This is a home-cooked favorite. Pozole is easily identified as a “thick, stew-like soup of pork or chicken, hominy, mild chile peppers, and cilantro” (and don’t forget those onions and radishes)! Naturally, it’s been around since time immemorial. First recorded in English between 1690–1700 from Mexican Spanish, pozole originates from the Nahuatl pozolli or “hominy.”

Pozole was a sacred dish offered to the god Xipe Totec, who presided over agriculture, spring, and fertility. With his name literally meaning “The Flayed One,” Xipe Totec’s skin was often depicted as sloughing off his body. This was to be evocative of a corn husk that would be stripped away to get at the hominy—which is in the pozole, of course!

Alongside its cousin, menudo, pozole is believed to be a cure for hangovers.

molcajete

Perhaps you’re familiar with what a mortar and pestle are. It’s essentially what a molcajete is—just larger and with a tripod of feet underneath. From the combination of molli (which you may recall means “sauce”) and caxitl (which means “bowl”), the original Nahuatl iteration of the word was mollicaxtli. In all instances of past, present, and molcajetes yet to come, this particular culinary utensil is traditionally made of stone.

Much like a cast iron skillet, molcajetes are meant to hold the seasoning from prior dishes. While they can be used to display a particular dish nicely, they are best when put to work in grinding ingredients to unleash maximum flavor. It was believed that a molcajete could take up to a generation to season, so you know that they have to be built to last.

Take our quiz!

If you’re interested in broadening your linguistic heritage by reviewing all of these words in English that come from Nahuatl, you can check out our word list here. Or you can grind together the nuggets of knowledge you’ve learned and apply it to our short quiz.

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