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Nahuatl is now the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico with around 1.5 million speakers predominantly in the central regions of the country, such as the State of Mexico, Puebla and Hidalgo. However, it was once the most widely spoken language in the Aztec Empire, and it became a literary language with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and their Latin alphabet. Here are some of the words the English language owes to Nahuatl and the Aztecs.
Stemming from the word āhuacatl, this can also translate to ‘testicle’ which makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever seen the shape of an avocado. Now one of Mexico’s most famed and staple ingredients, we owe both the word and the fruit to the Aztecs. There are many notable health benefits of eating avocados, which are sometimes known as ‘alligator pears’: they have more potassium than a banana and are full of heart-healthy fats.
On the topic of delicious avocados, the name of the popular guacamole dip which comes from combining a basic trio of ingredients (tomato, avocado and onion) also comes from Nahuatl; āhuacamōlli brings together the āhuaca prefix of āhuacatl (avocado) and mōlli, means sauce. Now a favourite at Mexican restaurants and house parties worldwide, if you want to up your guacamole game, you can even add lime juice, chili and cilantro to the mix.
As few people are aware, cacao production and chocolate consumption began in Mexico and, in line with this delicious culinary heritage, we also owe the words for both cacao and chocolate to the Nahuatl language. Cacao (or cocoa) comes directly from cacahuatl, whereas the word chocolate has a slightly murkier past. Due to the fact that chocolate was first drunk rather than consumed, many believe chocolate comes from xocolātl or chocolātl, meaning ‘bitter water’ (xococ + ātl ). However, other researchers reject this etymology.
While on the subject of chocolate, the famed Mexican mole sauce also owes its name to the Aztecs. Stemming from the word mōlli, which we’ve already seen as part of the etymological root of guacamole, mole simply means sauce. This therefore makes the English way of referring to the dish (‘mole sauce’) a slight misnomer, just like calling chai tea, well, chai tea! The most popular version of mole, mole poblano, combines several ingredients in a complex recipe which includes both chili and chocolate.
Similarly, the other key ingredient of mole is also named for an Aztec word – chilli. Another well-known staple of Mexican cuisine, the humble chili has been used for millennia (in Mexico at least) to add some much-needed depth and flavour to otherwise bitter or muted dishes. For example, the early chocolate drinks were typically flavoured with chili to take the edge off their typically very bitter, harsh taste.
A former must-have superfood of the moment, along with equally interestingly named foods like quinoa, kale and açai berries, chia is a word we also owe to the Aztecs. From the Nahuatl word chian, this is now a popular health food that is native to both central Mexico and parts of Guatemala. Although it’s incredibly expensive in the US and the UK, for example, it’s very cheap in Mexico.
One of the few animals whose English language name is taken from the Nahuatl word, the coyote was known as coyōtl back in the Aztec period. In fact, few people realise that the popular Mexico City neighbourhood Coyoacán actually translates roughly to ‘place of the coyotes’. Coyotes themselves are native to more or less all of central and north America.
Now an increasingly popular drink outside of its typical production regions in Oaxaca, mezcal (sometimes written incorrectly as mescal) is a smoky agave spirit that rivals tequila in renown and flavour. It is also another product and word that come from the Mesoamerican peoples of Mexico – originally written as mexcalli, meaning ‘oven cooked agave’, it gradually came to the English language via the Hispanicization mezcal.
Let’s move on from one spirit which will knock your socks off to a plant that has hallucinogenic properties: peyote. Made famous by many of the Beat Generation writers and poets who loved popping across the border for drug-fuelled trips in both senses of the word, peyote was originally written peyōtl. What’s strange about this word is that the root ‘peyo’ is not known in Nahuatl, meaning it was likely borrowed from another unknown language.
This may seem an odd addition, but shack is from Nahuatl by the way of Mexican Spanish. Many etymologists assert that it developed from the word xahcalli which loosely translates to ‘grass hut’ before being Hispanicized and passed through into English.
We round off the guide with perhaps the most surprising entry of all – tomato! While the rest of the words have seemed fairly logical, given that they refer to plants, foods and animals native to Mexico or originating from the Mesoamerican period, tomato seems so entirely normal and familiar that it’s surprising that we owe the word to the Aztecs! However, it’s tricky to deny that tomato has its roots in the Nahuatl word tomatl.