12 Words English Got from the Aztecs


Planning a barbeque this weekend? You can thank the Aztecs for some of the items on your list. A typical Aztec meal from 1519, when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, would look familiar to lovers of Mexican food today: corn tortillas wrapped around beans, chili, avocado, and tomatoes. In fact, the names of several of these familiar foods come to us from Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs. But cuisine is not the only source of English words with an Aztec background.

1. Chia

“Ch-ch-ch-chia, the pottery that grows!” Remember the Chia Pet? Sorry for reminding you. Chia may be the most annoying word English got from the Aztecs.

Chia, the green “fur” that grows out of the pottery animals, is an annual plant native to Mexico, Salvia hispanica. According to Wikipedia, the word comes from the Nahuatl chian, meaning oily. The present Mexican state of Chiapas received its name from the Nahuatl "chia water" or "chia river."

2.    Coyote

The name of this wolf-like wild dog native to North America (and now a colloquial term for a smuggler of immigrants) entered English in the 18th century, from Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl coyotl:

"Saw a cayjotte, or wild dog, which in size nearly approached the wolf." — William Bullock, Six months' residence and travels in Mexico, 1824.

3.    Mesquite

Have some mesquite charcoal ready for your Memorial Day barbeque? The name for this spiny tree or shrub of the pea family, native to arid regions of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, entered English in the mid 18th century from Mexican Spanish mezquite, from Nahautl mizquitl:

Another tree which they call a Miskito: it beareth a fruite like vnto a peasecod marueilous sweete, which the wilde people gather and keepe it all the yeere, and eate it in steede of bread. — Richard Hakluyt · The principall navigations, voiages and discoveries of the English nation · 1st edition, 1589

4.    Ocelot

A wild cat, Felis pardalis, having a tawny coat marked with numerous black rings, spots and streaks, and found in forests and scrub from southern Texas to Argentina. The word comes, via French, from Nahuatl tlatlocelotl, literally "field jaguar."

5.    Peyote

The cactus Lophophora williamsii, or a hallucinogenic drug made from it, containing mescaline and used especially in some North American Indian rituals.

Origin: via Spanish peyote, from Nahuatl peyotl. From The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, published in 1913:

We endeavoured further to extend knowledge of pathological mental states by producing mental conditions nearly allied to generally recognized types of insanity... For this purpose we used the Mexican drug [printed drag] pelotte.

6.    Shack

Although this word for a roughly-built cabin or shanty sounds as if it could have come from Old English, the earliest citation for it in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1878. In 1881, the New York Times was still putting quotation marks around the word, indicating it was slang or unfamiliar. The origin is obscure, but it may come from the Mexican Spanish word jacal, from Aztec xacalli, meaning "wooden hut."

7. Tule

Californians, especially those from the Central Valley, are familiar with tule (pronounced TOO-lee) fog, the thick ground fog that makes driving through the Valley a risky proposition in late fall to winter.  Some Californians use the expression “Out in the tules” to mean the boondocks or the sticks. Fewer people know that tule refers to either of two species of bulrush abundant in low lands along riversides in California and hence, a thicket of this, or a flat tract of land in which it grows. The origin is the Nahuatl word tullin.

8.    Tomato

From French, Spanish, or Portuguese tomate, from Nahuatl tomatl.

There was also Indian pepper, beetes, Tomates, which is a great sappy and savourie graine. — José de Acosta · The naturall and morall historie of the East and West Indies (transl. Edward Grimeston) · 1st edition, 1604

9.    Avocado

This word entered English in the mid 17th century, from Nahuatl ahuactl, by way of Spanish aguacate. Because of their shape and bumpy green skin, some people call avocados “alligator pears,” but for the Aztecs, the bulging fruit brought something else to mind. According to, ahuacatl is short for āhuacacuahuitl, which means "testicle tree" (āhuacatl, "testicle" + cuahuitl, "tree").

10. Chili

This word for hot peppers came into English around 1660 from Spanish chile, which comes from Nahautl chilli.

"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. "A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported. – Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848 

11. Guacamole

A dish of mashed avocado mixed with chopped onion, tomatoes, chili peppers, and seasoning. Origin: Latin American Spanish, from Nahuatl ahuacamolli, from ahuacatl, ‘avocado’ + molli, ‘sauce.’

12. Chocolate

"From time to time they brought [the emperor Montezuma], in cup-shaped vessels of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao, and the women served this drink to him with great reverence.”  — Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico.

The treasure rooms of Montezuma’s palace were filled not with gold, but with cacao beans, the source of chocolate. Unlike today’s bonbons, Aztec chocolatl was a bitter, hot and spicy drink made with ground corn, vanilla, and chilis. Along with golden treasure, the Spanish brought chocolate back to Europe. And the rest is delicious history.


Sources: “Salvia hispanica, Wikipedia; “Chocolate,” Oxford Bibliographies; OED [Oxford English Dictionary] Online; New Oxford American Dictionary (Second Ed.); The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fifth ed.);; Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la Lengua Española; Wood, Tim, The Aztecs.

Live Smarter
Nervous About Asking for a Job Referral? LinkedIn Can Now Do It for You

For most people, asking for a job referral can be daunting. What if the person being approached shoots you down? What if you ask the "wrong" way? LinkedIn, which has been aggressively establishing itself as a catch-all hub for employment opportunities, has a solution, as Mashable reports.

The company recently launched "Ask for a Referral," an option that will appear to those browsing job listings. When you click on a job listed by a business that also employs one of your LinkedIn first-degree connections, you'll have the opportunity to solicit a referral from that individual.

The default message that LinkedIn creates is somewhat generic, but it hits the main topics—namely, prompting you to explain how you and your connection know one another and why you'd be a good fit for the position. If you're the one being asked for a referral, the site will direct you to the job posting and offer three prompts for a response, ranging from "Sure…" to "Sorry…".

LinkedIn says the referral option may not be available for all posts or all users, as the feature is still being rolled out. If you do see the option, it will likely pay to take advantage of it: LinkedIn reports that recruiters who receive both a referral and a job application from a prospective hire are four times more likely to contact that individual.

[h/t Mashable]

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Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."


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