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The Wide World of Word Origins: English Words Derived from Nahuatl

Nahuatl is an Uto-Aztecan language spoken by about 1.5 million people in central Mexico. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztec empire, and as long ago as that may be, traces of the language's influence can still be felt today. These 15 words, many of which are common in English, derive ultimately from Nahuatl, pre-dating the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
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Full list of words from this list:

  1. axolotl
    larval salamander of mountain lakes of Mexico that usually lives without metamorphosing
    The man-made islands created by the Aztecs have been hit by pollution and urban sprawl, endangering the endemic salamanders known as axolotls.
    —US News (July 9, 2014)
    From atl, "water", and xolotl, "slippery or wrinkled one, servant", so literally "servant of water".
  2. mesquite
    any of several small spiny trees or shrubs of the genus Prosopis having small flowers in axillary cylindrical spikes followed by large pods rich in sugar
    The waterfront at local Anzalduas Park has become a hot spot for crossings and photo opportunities under the palms and mesquite.
    —Los Angeles Times (July 9, 2014)
    From mizquitl, the Nahuatl name for the tree.
  3. coyote
    small wolf native to western North America
    I’ll go out and call for the dog, because it’s getting to be evening, and there are coyotes out there in the woods.
    —Feed, M.T. Anderson
    From coyotl, the Nahuatl term for the animal.
  4. chili
    very hot and finely tapering pepper of special pungency
    "The particular blend of playful menace works together like chili and chocolate," says Failbetter Games CEO and creative director Alexis Kennedy.
    —The Verge (July 14, 2014)
    From the Nahuatl native name for the peppers, chilli.
  5. chipotle
    a ripe jalapeno that has been dried for use in cooking
    Shooter's sandwich: The shooter's sandwich fills a loaf of crusty bread with slices of well-seasoned grilled steak, chipotle chiles and shiitake mushrooms.
    —Los Angeles Times (July10, 2014)
    From chilli, "chili," and poctli, "smoke"
  6. cacao
    tropical American tree producing cacao beans
    “When you see a mango tree and a cacao tree together, you know people used to live here,” he said.
    —New York Times June 12, 2014
    From cacaua, root form of the name for the cacao bean itself, which is cacahuatl.
  7. guacamole
    a dip made of mashed avocado
    Because of “The Great Lime Crisis of 2014,” restaurants from New York to Los Angeles have stopped selling margaritas and making guacamole.
    —Salon (May 14, 2014)
    From ahuaca-molli, literally "avocado sauce."
  8. tamale
    corn and cornmeal dough stuffed with a meat mixture then wrapped in corn husks and steamed
    For a local take on Mexican, Donna’s Tamales makes vegetarian enchiladas, breakfast burritos and tamales in flavors like smoked Cheddar, black bean and yam.
    —New York Times (Jan 24, 2013)
    From tamal, tamalli, Nahuatl name for the food.
  9. ocelot
    nocturnal wildcat of Central America and South America having a dark-spotted buff-brown coat
    They are considered a “bridge” between typical big cats, like lions and tigers, and small cats, like pumas, lynx and ocelots.
    —Washington Times (May 18, 2014)
    From tlalocelotl, "field jaguar".
  10. chocolate
    a food made from roasted ground cacao beans
    A yummy suggestion: an eight-ounce glass of chocolate milk with a pinch of salt, for a new twist on an old favorite.
    —US News (July 10, 2014)
    From xocolatl , which is probably made up of xocolia, "to make bitter," and atl, "water." Chocolate was originally a drink.
  11. avocado
    a pear-shaped tropical fruit with green or blackish skin
    Eating good fat and protein, like eggs, avocado and meat plus vegetables, helped curb sugar cravings.
    —Seattle Times (July 2, 2014)
    From ahuakatl, the Nahuatl name for the fruit. A word of warning: this is not a word to shout in Nahuatl speaking areas, as it is also slang for "testicle."
  12. tomato
    mildly acid red or yellow pulpy fruit eaten as a vegetable
    And don't forget about lycopene, found mainly in tomatoes, which has many bodily benefits, including protection against skin-damaging ultraviolet rays.
    —US News (July 17, 2014)
    From tomatl, literally "the swelling fruit", from tomanna, "to swell".
  13. Mexico
    a republic in southern North America
    Like many countries, Mexico is facing a severe obesity crisis.
    —Time (July 16, 2014)
    From mexihco, the name of the Aztec capital.
  14. Aztec
    a member of the Nahuatl people who established an empire in Mexico that was overthrown by Cortes in 1519
    The Aztecs did have dogs, albeit smaller ones that seldom barked, so they would probably have known what they were putting on display.
    —US News (Dec 31, 2013)
    From aztecatl, meaning "coming from Aztlan," which was the place of origin in legends.
  15. Quetzalcoatl
    an Aztec deity represented as a plumed serpent
    Quetzalcoatl was described by the Mexicans as tall, with a fair complexion, long, dark hair, and a flowing beard.
    —The Student's Mythology, Catherine Ann White
    From quetzalli, the name of a regional bird ( which literally means "tail feather"), and coatl, "snake."
Created on July 14, 2014 (updated August 16, 2019)

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