Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Nahuatl Loanwords: Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at some loanwords from Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire. Over the next two days, we'll be looking at loanwords from the language of another major pre-Columbian civilization, the Aztec Empire.

Artist Salvador Dalí and his pet ocelot Babou.
Nahuatl is still spoken by over a million people in Latin America, mainly in Mexico and El Salvador. During the Spanish conquest, many Nahuatl words for concepts new to Europeans were adopted by the Spaniards. Eventually, many of them also made their way into the English language. Today we'll be looking at some of our favorite Nahuatl plant and animal terminology.

Ocelot - We love felines, and these endangered wildcats are no exception. Their name comes from the Nahuatl word ocēlōtl, though the term was generally used in reference to their larger relative, the jaguar.

Peyote - This small, spineless cactus is known as peyōtl in Nahuatl, and is thought to refer to the plant as well as mean "caterpillar". The plant is known for its psychoactive properties and is primarily used within Native American tribes, where it is used to treat everything from childbirth pains to diabetes and blindness. It's also known to be helpful with psychedelic meditation.

Shack - Nobody knows for sure where the name for these small, sometimes "primitive", dwellings came from, but some linguists guess that it is derived from the Nahuatl term xacalli, meaning "grass/wooden hut".
This coyote pup couldn't be any cuter if he tried.

Coyote - Also known as "American jackals" and "prairie wolves", these canines get their name from the Nahuatl term coyotl, which can also mean "trickster"!

Mesquite - This term actually refers to a shrub from the pea family known as mizquitl in Nahuatl. Its wood burns slowly and produces a lot of heat, but is known for the distinctive flavor it infuses into barbecued meats. Mmm.

Tomorrow we'll finish our look at Nahuatl loanwords with some tasty food terminology.