Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Chimichangas at the OK Corral

Two US states celebrate their centenaries in 2012: Arizona and New Mexico. We join them this month with a look at their unique contributions to English, and the characteristic ways in which language contact gives rise to borrowing, hybridization, and neologisms.

Numerous cultures have risen and fallen in the territory that Arizona and New Mexico now occupy. History as taught in US primary and secondary education often focuses on the civilizing influence of English settlement in North America, but in fact the Spanish settled in what is now the American Southwest when the Pilgrim Fathers were still toddlers: Spanish and Mexican explorers established colonies and missions along the New Mexico stretch of the Rio Grande in the late 16th century, and they found Native American cultures, both vanished and still thriving, when they got there. These two linguistic strains — Spanish and the dozens Native American languages native to the region — are responsible for much of the area's influence on English. A third linguistic influence, cowboy and outlaw culture, arose from the interaction of Anglophone frontier settlers with the hybrid cultures already in the area.

The climate and geography of the Southwest channeled some Spanish geographical terms into English. These terms were applied originally to features observed in the area but the terms are now used more generally, such as mesa and arroyo.  A more interesting case is canyon, a phonetic respelling of Spanish cañón, which the Spanish first applied to formations that they saw in New Mexico. English stripped the diacriticals from the word in its usual fashion, and inserted a y into itto reflect the correct pronunciation and to prevent confusion with canon. Names for flora and fauna native to the Southwest are also heavily influenced by names from Spanish, native languages, or the interplay of the two. Chayote, chili, coyote, huisache, jicama, mesquite, nopal, and ocotillo all come directly from Spanish but ultimately from Nahuatl.

The Rio Grande gorge in New Mexico, a formation that may have evoked the word "canyon" in Spanish explorers.

The earliest cultures in the Southwest, in response to prevailing climatic conditions, developed a form of habitation that the Spanish called the pueblo.  The natives built their pueblos with adobe. They didn't call it adobe, but the Spanish did, having brought the word with them from Spain. Adobe has traveled far from its source, always carried by desert winds. The Spanish picked it up from Arabic in nearby North Africa; the Arabs got it from Coptic, but the ur-source of adobe is Egyptian hieroglyphic. It's a word that hasn't changed meaning in 4000 years and it retains some of its original sounds in all of its instantiations in various languages.

Consumers of dishes that we think of now as "Mexican food" have been traveling up into the Southwest for five centuries now. Despite that, most of the familiar terms for these delectations did not get properly credentialed in English (via dictionary definitions) until the 20th-century. The chronology is roughly this: frijole (1577), tortilla (1648), tamale (1854), enchilada (1887), taco (1914), guacamole (1920), chile relleno (1929), posole (1931), burrito (1934), sopaipilla (1940), nacho (1949), fajita (1971), flauta (1976), chipotle (1988). The chimichanga officially debuted in English in 1968 and so was probably not present at the OK Corral, an Arizona venue. However, if that venue had had more lexicographers than desperados, someone might have been more careful to document what the locals were eating.

Desperado was in use before its application to lawless types in the American Southwest, but it found a natural home there as an emblem of the interaction of cowboys and outlaws with Spanish-speaking peoples of the area. This interaction also spawned an interesting group of Spanish horsy words that now have a home in English. These include bronco, mustang, pinto, and palomino. Any of these might have been ridden by a desperado or a buckaroo — a word that is an Anglicization of Spanish vaquero, "cowboy." Best place to see all of these: the rodeo.

Perhaps the most interesting interplay of languages from the European settlement period of Arizona and New Mexico is in the names that we use in English for designating the various peoples there. The general rule is that English speakers don't usually designate people by a name that they use for themselves. The key question that seems to have determined what names the various groups go by in English is one that can be found in areas of language contact around the world and throughout history. Peoples get their label by someone answering the question, "What do you call those people over there?"

The Spanish have racked up the most points in naming rights for the dominant Native American tribes and nations in the area; the names Ute and Paiute are both derived from Spanish, and Spanish also provides the attribute name for the many tribes today that are grouped under the term Pueblo Indians, who are almost entirely in New Mexico. The Zuni, a large tribe of western New Mexico whose language is an isolate, are so designated with a Spanish word that probably came from Acoma Keresan, a Pueblo Indian language. The Apache also got their name from the Spanish, from a word that the Zunis used to designate the Navajo — an understandable confusion, perhaps, because both the Navajo and Apache speak an Athabaskan language. The Navajo are so called because the Spanish first called them Apache de Navajó, "Apaches of the Navajó," Navajó being a toponym for the area this tribe occupied. The word Navajo may ultimately be from Tewa, a Tanoan language of New Mexico and Arizona. Today the Navajo are mainly content to call themselves Navajo, though their native word, Diné, "people," also has some currency. The Navajo have bequeathed to us their name for a more advanced culture that preceded them, the Anasazi. That term, however, has the crosshairs of political correctness aimed at it today because in Navajo it means "enemy ancestors," and there is a movement now to redesignate the Anasazi as "Ancestral Puebloans." Chalk up another point for Spanish.

Adobe pueblos in Arizona, built by the Anasazis or "Ancestral Puebloans."

Hybrid languages and cultures still thrive in Arizona and New Mexico today and bilingualism flourishes. At this website, you can hear samples of some North American indigenous languages that are spoken at New Mexico's pueblos. Another website for looking at Native American languages is

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 1st 2012, 2:44 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The name "chipotle" retains (somewhat unusually in English) a consonant cluster -- the "tl" combination -- that marks it as having origin in the native languages of Mexico, in this case Nahuatl. This particular consonant cluster is not typical for English within a single syllable; and because we tend to think of the -e on the end of the word as a silent marker for a long vowel, a common pronunciation I hear sounds like "cheep-OH-tul" instead of "chee-poh-tlay," which I suppose is a better approximation of the original. (Or of the Spanish interpretation of the original; who knows what the _real_ pronunciation might be.)

By the way, I recently read something wherein a scholar considered that the origin of "taco" was in mining camps of Mexico, where the food was named for the shape of a blasting charge used in the mining process. Any thoughts about that?
Monday October 1st 2012, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
EXCELLENT article!
But, is the word supposed to be "hear" in the next to last sentence?
...The Language Police

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Monday October 1st 2012, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
The only reason I know this is because my spouse is a native Spanish speaker, but the singular word for "tamales" is "tamal," no "e".

I guess it's just another one of those interesting things that happens in English. We think taking off the "s" usually makes word singular. But in Spanish, if the word ends in a consonant, you always add an "es" to make it plural. Only when it ends in a vowel is adding just an "s" correct. So, if you just take off the "s" in tamales, that's not correct.

Like most Americans (and even the Visual Thesaurus tool!), I've been saying "tamales" my whole life, until I learned otherwise several years ago.

Just thought you'd like to know :).
Tuesday October 2nd 2012, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Roger: thanks, it's a comfort to know our streets are so ably patrolled.

Mike: the taco etymology you mention is glossed in the wikipedia article about 'taco', which cites a Smithsonian Magazine article. Sounds reputable to me!

Brak87: I think 'tamal' is now successfully lexicalized as 'tamale' in English; it even appears as 'tamale' on Mexican restaurant menus. English only tolerates irregular plural patterns if they're native, Latin, or extremely old!

Thanks to all.
Tuesday October 9th 2012, 9:59 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Hum! A great list of words introduced by Spanish speaking settlers.
That said, I am just curious to know about any other words introduced by other major non native settlers speaking languages like Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Original Indian people in USA.
Chinese settlers and their culture (which is a very big group now) and the language they practice in this country is their any new introduction by them?

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