San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

On Avocados, Lawyers and Testicles

Life has a funny way of turning up long-unanswered questions, however trivial, when we least expect it. When I was young, someone once took me out to an English tavern called the “Elephant and Castle.” I found the name exceedingly odd and could find no one who could explain it. Now, some 40 years later, I know. It is a distortion of the Spanish “El Infante de Castilla” (The Royal Prince of Castile) or “La Infanta de Castilla” (The Royal Princess of Castile).

Another interesting, though less silly, distortion is the word “alligator.” It comes from “el lagarto,” which means “the lizard.” It can also refer to what we call an “alligator.” Usually, however, Spanish speakers in this part of the world speak of “caimanes” and “cocodrilos,” a caiman being the smaller version. A lizard is called a “lagartija.” A “lagarto” simply refers to a large lizard.

I’ve often wondered where we got the word “avocado.” It looked to me like a Spanish word, but, as far as I knew, it wasn’t. It turns out to be something of a long story. The original word used in English was indeed the Spanish word for the fruit, “aguacate.” However, since the Spanish word in the 16th century for “lawyer” was “avocado” (now it’s “abogado”), English speakers got the words mixed up and started saying “avocado” instead of “aguacate” (I wonder if these were the same fools who mistook “Royal Prince of Castile” for “Elephant and Castle”?). The kicker is that the Spanish word “aguacate” comes from the Aztec Náhuatl word “ahuacatl,” which means “testicle.”

Someone should come up with a joke: How is an avocado more like a lawyer than a testicle?

Food, in fact, seems to provide particular points of confusion.

Take, for example, the word “guava.” The fruit that we call “guava” is called “guayaba” in Spanish. A “guava” in Spanish is a long pod full of a softish fruit, rather like a tamarind pod. However, since the word “guaya” is a variant of “guayaba,” people started saying “guava” instead of “guayaba.”

The word “cocoa” is another interesting case, not for the spelling, but for the pronunciation. It comes from the Náhuatl word “cacua,” which passed into Spanish as “cacao.”However, we pronounce “cocoa” like Spanish speakers pronounce “coco,” which means “coconut.” The word “coco,” by the way, is interesting in itself. It originally meant “grinning face,” very apt for a description of a coconut. Nowadays, in addition to “coconut,” it means colloquially both “head” and “bogeyman.” So, if you find yourself asking for a cup of hot “coco,” you may cause confusion on several levels.

The word “tuna” also causes some confusion. The Spanish word for the fish we know as tuna is “atún,” whereas “tuna” refers to a particular edible cactus plant.Nobody seems to know how we came to use the word “tuna” in English. I think people got it mixed up with the cactus, as happened in the cases of “avocado” and “guava.” As for the word “atún,” many sources claim that it comes from an indigenous word. In reality, it came to Spanish from the Arabic “tun,” which first gave Greek “thynnos” and Latin “thunnus.”

“Chili” (a form nonexistent in Spanish) is a further example of Gringo confusion. We generally use it to denote a hot red pepper, and we sometimes say “chili peppers” to distinguish hot peppers from sweet peppers. We also eat a dish called “chili con carne,” which manages to get two of the Spanish words correct, at least. The correct word in Spanish is “chile.” “Chile dulce” means “sweet pepper,” and “chile picante” means “hot (or spicy) pepper.” Logical. Thus, when we say “chili pepper,” we are more or less saying “pepper pepper” with a spelling error.

Or is it? As a matter of fact, the Náhuatl word for pepper, from which Spanish took its word, is “cilli” or “chilli,” so, by hook or by crook, we got the “i” right. In another crazy turnaround, however, we call the little seeds that come from an entirely different plant “black or white pepper.” The word in Spanish for this is “pimiento.” What we call “pimiento” or “pimento,” however, is a small, sweet red pepper (chile) with which we stuff green olives!

That’s enough confusion for now.Me? I’m heading out to have a glass of ale at the Elephant and Castle.


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