Mexican X-plainer: Balls, Nuts & Avocados
From time to time, I come across a meme or smirking social media post that claims the following:
“Avocado comes from the Aztecs’ word for testicle.” :lewd snicker:
And I’m like, “WTF? No, güey, absolutely not. Gah.”
Imagine some schlub five hundred years from now, giggling at the English words “balls” and “nuts.”
“Holy crap, Americans named their favorite sports equipment and a protein-rich food after their testicles! What a bunch of weirdos!”
Now imagine an interlocutor: “No, dude. I read online that their word for expensive gems came from the English word for testicles: jewels. Crazy!”
Then a clever friend of theirs jumps in. “That’s nothing! In Spanish, they named EGGS after their testicles, man. HUEVOS.”
I think you get the picture. Do you see how freaking stupid that is?
Yes, there was probably an informal, metaphorical use of “āhuacatl” (avocado) to stand for “ātetl” (the actual word for “testicles”).
But the name for the fruit came first, people. It wasn’t the OTHER WAY AROUND.
I’ll rant a bit more, then etymology time.
Why are folx so willing to believe this sort of nonsense? I’m not sure, but I see — again and again — a desire to either 1) elevate the Nahuas (“Aztecs” and related groups) and their language to some sacred, superhuman ideal or 2) exoticize their culture so that it is equally strange and abnormal. This habit feels as annoying and arrogant as the notion that aliens helped the ancient Maya build their pyramids.
Okay, let’s dig in. The main evidence we have for the metaphorical usage is Alonso de Molina’s 1571 dictionary of Nahuatl. Alonso was brought to Mexico in 1522, at the height of the Conquest. He was just eight years old, so the future friar spent his formative years playing with Mexica kids in the streets.
This was when the Spanish had begun transforming Tenochtitlan into Mexico City, so spending all that time with monolingual Nahuatl speakers made Alonso de Molina fluent .. in the kind of language kids on the street will use. Six years later he entered the Franciscan convent of Mexico City.
So, yeah, young guys liked to call their testicles “avocados.” Hardly a strong basis for all this BS amateur etymology I keep seeing. Sheesh.
Literally every other bit of textual evidence ONLY discusses avocados as plants or food.
But, wow, so much more fun to be nasty, eh?
In reality, “āhuacatl” is a quite run-of-the-mill plant name with deep roots in the Uto-Aztecan language family.
It derives from a term already common 5,000 years ago in Proto-Uto Aztecan, spoken in what’s now Northern Mexico and the US Southwest.
This root probably meant “oak.” It gave rise to multiple cognates: the Cupeño “páwi-x” (blue oak), the Tubar “amwá-t” (oak), and the Guarijío “awé” (a kind of oak). There’s even a related word farther north, the Ute “pawá-pu” (cedar tree).
In Proto-Nahuan, the immediate ancestor of modern Nahuan languages, the word became *pāwatl, meaning “a species of big tree / avocado tree.”
The word appears to have come down to us pretty much intact as “pagua,” a very large variety of avocado. Interestingly, “pahuatl” in Classical Nahuatl broadly meant “non-acidic, unsweet fruit” (acidic fruit was xocotl and sweet fruit tzapotl).
When we look more closely at Classical Nahuatl, we see the vestiges of the earlier “oak” meaning of *pawa-. The avocado tree is “āhuacacuahuitl” whereas the very similar “āhuacuahuitl” means oak tree: its synonym is “āhuatl.”
One last item. I gave “āhuatl” as a synonym for “āhuacuahuitl” (oak tree). Well, it could also mean “acorn” (which was also “āhuatomatl”).
You can imagine early Nahuas, entering Central Mexico, encountering the avocado tree, and thinking, “Ca āhuacuahuitl ihuān āhuatl iuhqui” (This is like an oak tree and acorns).
It’s not hard to see how that could lead to “Ca āhuacacuahuitl īhuān āhuacatl” (This is an avocado tree and avocados).*
At the end of the day, friends, the name of the fruit predates its anatomical metaphorical use by many, many centuries.
While we’re at it, no, “guacamole” does NOT mean “mashed avocado.” It comes from “āhuacamōlli” or “avocado sauce.” That second word in the compound, “mōlli” (sauce), is where the modern Mexican Spanish dish “mole” comes from.
The misconception comes from the existence of the Spanish verb “moler” (to grind up). But “ground-up” stuff doesn’t get “mole” stuck at the end of it. Look at these various forms: carne molida (ground beef), nuez molida (crushed walnuts), puré de papas (mashed potatoes). Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Spanish would get how foolish that folk etymology is.
So spread the word. Hipsters aren’t eating testicle toast. Good grief, gente.
*There is a teensy debate in the linguistic community about whether āhuacatl might be derived from or influenced by a borrowing from Totonac. It doesn’t change the conclusions of this article, however.
I drew from several sources as I live-tweeted the original version of this piece on Twitter:
- Christopher S. Beekman, George L. Cowgill, Karen Dakin, et al. “Comments on Kaufman and Justeson: ‘The History of the Word for Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica’.” Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 21, № 2 (Fall 2010), pp. 415–441.
- Frances E. Karttunen. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
- Arthur J. O. Anderson & Charles E. Dibble, translators. The Florentine Codex. University of Utah Press.
- Rémi Siméon. Diccionario de la lengua náhuatl o mexicana.
- Alexis Wimmer. Dictionnaire Nahuatl-Français. http://sites.estvideo.net/malinal/nahuatl.orient.html
- Wikipedia. “Alonso de Molina.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alonso_de_Molina
- Magnus Pharo Hansen. “No Snopes.com, the word guacamole does not come from the Nahuatl word for ‘ground testicles or avocados.’” https://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2016/02/no-snopescom-word-guacamole-does-not.html