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Hand with cocoa beans

In celebration of World Chocolate Day, which is Friday 7 July, Jamie Paterno Ostmann, a PhD candidate in our Department of History, explores different theories regarding the origins of the word ‘chocolate.’

Consider what might occur in Cornwall should someone from Devon put clotted cream on a scone before the jam: an unthinkable cultural upset. Cornwall and Devon are neighbours.

The space they occupy overlaid on a map of Mexico would often be grouped by scholars as one culturally monolithic zone. But as the great British scone debate proves, seemingly significant cultural differences can develop in relatively small geographic spheres.

Europeans had no word for chocolate

Nothing exemplifies the sheer scope, geographically and temporally, of the history of chocolate better than debates of its linguistic origin. As Europeans had no access to chocolate prior to American contact, there were simply no words for it in any European language.

Additionally, it can be fairly assumed that the transfer of language describing cacao went through the Nahuatl language, the language spoken by the Mexica/Aztecs and the Indigenous language most familiar to the Spanish invaders in the sixteenth century.

But as Martha Macri, a linguist who specialises in Indigenous languages, argues, that is where the agreement on linguistic origin ends. Was cacao a proto-Nahua word? Or was it a word already borrowed from another Mesoamerican language, perhaps one that existed closer to chocolate’s geographic origins?

Where did the word cacao come from?

While the origin of the spoken word is up for much debate, there are many examples of the written word for cacao—from the middle of the fifth century onward—at a variety of Maya sites.

Floyd Lounsbury first identified the glyph for cacao—kakaw—in the 1970s, towards the beginning of the process of cracking the Maya language.

In 1984, a drinking vessel was excavated in Rio Azul, Guatemala, where David Stuart, a child prodigy who had worked closely with Mayanist researcher and artist Linda Schele to decipher Maya writing, was working. He noticed two glyphs on the side of a drinking vessel that featured fish gills and a monkey’s face. Using a technique developed using artwork from Schele, he deciphered them phonetically as kakaw: cacao.

Analysis run by Hershey, a United States-based chocolate company, proved there was cacao residue on the inside of the vessel, confirming, in a watershed moment, not only the transcription of that specific glyph, but that Maya script was in fact decipherable.

Five cups of chocolate a day, for 12 years

As the vessel on which the glyph was found suggests, chocolate was consumed as a drink, not as a food. It is possible the method of preparation contributed to its naming process. Thomas Gage, an English Dominican friar who travelled to the Spanish colonies in 1625, wrote extensively about chocolate making in his travel writings, which he published in England in 1648.

A strong enthusiast of chocolate, Gage documented drinking four to five cups a day for twelve years. He noted its particular power as a stimulant, writing: “I would take another cup around seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking until midnight.”

Entirely consciously or not, he also demonstrated his body’s addiction to the stimulant properties, reporting, “And if by chance I did neglect any of these accustomed hours [to consume chocolate], I presently found my stomach fainty. And with this custome I lived twelve years in these parts healthy, without obstructions, or oppilations, not knowing what either ague, or fever was.”

Stirring up the mystery…

Beyond his reports of the effects of chocolate on the body, he reports a linguistic theory for the origin of the word as well. Like many linguists today, Gage details that the second half of the word comes from atl, the Nahuatl word for water. But he purports that the origin of the first half of the word came from the “choco, choco, choco” sound the wooden stirring stick made when frothing the chocolate in the cup. The ideas and theories surrounding chocolate’s linguistic origins are as varied as the cultures and histories from the societies in which it developed. It is highly likely that there is no one answer to the origin of chocolate’s name.

Find out more

  • Ms Jamie Paterno Ostmann is a PhD candidate in our Department of History.
  • Jamie is currently working on a project titled ‘Making Chocolate in the British Atlantic World: Foodways, Consumption and Heritage.’

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