The etymology of chocolate

The history of chocolate covers its use as a drink, a flavouring, and a sweet. The Central American Toltecs and the Itzá knew and used cocoa, but it was the Maya who successfully grew it, established a flourishing trade and even used the cocoa bean as a unit of inter-tribal currency.

In November 2007, archaeologists found evidence of the oldest known cultivation and use of cacao at a site in Puerto Escondido, Honduras, dating from about 1100 to 1400 BCE. The residues found, and the kind of vessel they were found in, indicate that cacao was used as a source of fermentable sugar for an alcoholic drink.

The word “chocolate” entered the English language from Spanish, although there are several possible derivations. The best known is that “chocolate” comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, from the word xocolātl (xococ meaning “sour” or “bitter”) and ātl (meaning “water” or “drink”). That certainly matches a report of José de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who lived in Peru and then Mexico in the late 16th century. He wrote:

 “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this Chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that ‘chili’; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.”

However, scholars have noted that the word chocolatl does not occur in central Mexican colonial sources and propose a derivation from the Yucatec Maya word chokol (meaning hot) and the Nahuatl atl (meaning water). Pointing to sources dating from the Spanish conquest, they identify cacahuatl (cacao water) as the original Nahuatl word for the cold beverage consumed by the Aztecs. Noting that using a word with caca in it to describe a thick, brown beverage would not have gone down well with most speakers of Spanish due to the fact that caca means poo, it has been suggested that the Spanish colonisers combined the Nahuatl atl with the Yucatec Maya chocol.

More recently, other scholars have indicated another Nahuatl term, chicolatl from eastern Nahuatl (meaning “beaten drink”) – derived from the word for the frothing stick, chicoli. Those who object say that xicalli referred to the gourd out of which the beverage was consumed and that the use of a frothing stick (called a molinollo) was a product of creolisation between the Spanish and Aztecs. The original frothing method used by the indigenous people was to pour the drink from a height into another vessel.

History matters little in the face of today’s overwhelming passion for the product of the humble cocoa bean. As Roald Dahl observed, “Never mind about 1066 William the Conqueror, 1087 William the Second. Such things are not going to affect one’s life … but 1932 the Mars Bar and 1936 Maltesers and 1937 the Kit Kat –- these dates are milestones in history and should be seared into the memory of every child in the country.”

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