It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million people still speak variants of Nahuatl, the lingua franca of Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish. However, many more use words derived from the Aztec language on a daily basis, especially in Mexico and Central America, but also beyond.
There are those who have called her “the prettiest word of the Spanish language ”.
It is “cuddle”, a voice of Nahuatl origin that the RAE defines as “affectionate pat or hug.”
Mexicans, however, have a much more poetic definition of the act of cuddling: “Hug or caress with the soul.”
And is that the term –especially common andn Mexico and Central America, but also used in other Latin American countries— refers to something that goes beyond physical contact.
The apapacho It is affection, it is consolation, it is pampering, it is tenderness… In fact, even if the RAE says so, no one in the region would link the idea of a slap to a simple pat (no matter how affectionate they are).
Etymologically, apapacho derives from the Nahuatl voice patzoa, which can be translated as squeeze and some authors also link with the word crush (which the RAE includes in its dictionary as a synonym for dispatch).
And this last word can be useful if one wants to prepare guacamole, because to prepare this dish it is essential to gut some avocados And both the dish and the fruit also have a Nahuatl flavor.
Indeed, the word guacamole comes from a combination of the words ahuacatl and mulli.
The second means “sauce”, which explains the amount of moles different that exist in the delicious Mexican cuisine.
While the word ahuacatl it was used both to refer to the fruit of the tree of the same name and to the testicles. Do you notice any resemblance?
With Nahuatl on my lips
For the rest, avocado is not the only natural fruit from Mesoamerica that enriched both our cuisine and our vocabulary.
The region —and Nahuatl— also gave us (among other delicacies) the chili, the tomato, the peanuts and the cocoa.
And, with cocoa, chocolate, from xoco (bitter) and atl (water), since originally the xocolatl It was a bitter and spicy drink, quite different from the popular sweet we know today.
From the word chile, for its part, there is not much to explain, because chilli it was simply the name that the Aztecs gave to that spicy fruit.
While tomatl would come to mean “fat thing” and tlacacahuatl “Ground cocoa”, from tlalli, land, and cacahuatl, cocoa.
(Which explains why, in Latin America, they say peanut and not peanut, as they call peanuts in Spain).
Of the jalapenos to the mezcal, the list of fruits, foods and drinks with names of Nahuatl origin is extensive.
But another to highlight is the word Tamale (from tamalli, wrapped), used throughout most of the continent to describe some variety of this “kind of cornmeal dough, wrapped in leaves” (despite the existence of buns, humitas and Hallas).
And, far from food, Mesoamerican fauna has also helped popularize other Nahuatl words, such as coyote or quetzal.
This last word – also present in the name of the Aztec god Quetzalcoátl, “the feathered serpent” – can be translated as “Beautiful plumage”.
And that description certainly does justice to Guatemala’s national bird.
Another Nahuatl heritage, less known, is the gum, then tzictli (“Sticky thing”) was the name of the resin from the chicozapote tree that the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica used as chewing gum.
And the word whiteboard It also comes from Nahuatl, where gypsum is said tizatl.
In Spain it may also be surprising that chapapote —The word used to refer to the black and viscous substance that in 2002 contaminated the beaches of Galicia after the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker — has Mesoamerican origin.
Although maybe not as much as the use of the word dick in certain areas of Central America, where it does not describe the virile member but rather means a small child, also due to Nahuatl heritage.
(And, as with peanuts, in the case of chapapote the Spaniards also changed a letter to the original word, as shown by the fact that in Mexico chapopote is said to refer to asphalt or tar).
Other words of Nahuatl origin in common use in several Spanish-speaking countries are rubber (from ulli, “Rubber or elastic rubber”, in the first meaning of the RAE) and flask (which describes both trunks and suitcases and pocket bottles used to carry alcoholic beverages).
But some of the most beautiful and sonorous – such as achichincle, kite or pepenar, to give a few examples – are more geographically confined to Mexico and some Central American countries.
Achichincle, (literally, “that sucks water”) can be translated as subordinate, although it has a somewhat more pejorative connotation, since it implies a certain servility,
While kite (originally the Nahuatl voice for butterfly) today mostly describes the paper kites that children play with in the wind, and pepe describes the act of picking things up from the ground.
And you, what other words from Nahuatl do you know and would you include in this list?
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It may interest you:
Apapacho and other words of Nahuatl origin that are said in various parts of the world
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This article was written for the digital version of Centroamérica Cuenta, a literary festival that would be held in Managua from May 21 to 25, but was postponed indefinitely due to the political and social crisis in Nicaragua. During this week, however, BBC Mundo will publish part of this material, which tries to give an idea of the diversity and cultural richness of the Central American region.