Delicious English Words (Chocolate, Guacamole) with Aztec Roots

Chocolate, guacamole, avocado, and more yummy words we get from Aztec languages. Chocolate, for instance, comes from the Nahuatl word “xocolatl.”

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #599

Aztec sun calendar to illustrate the idea of words from Aztec

Most people like chocolate, but most of us probably don’t know from which language the English word originates. Take a guess. Perhaps you thought of Spanish, because the word “chocolate” in that language is “chocolate.” Sorry, that’s not right. However, Spanish speakers who encountered the Aztecs do have something to do with it. Keep reading to learn about a few English words that come from an Aztec language, Nahuatl.

Who Speaks Nahuatl?

Nahuatl is one of 62 individual languages in the Uto-Aztecan family, and it is spoken today by about half a million people in central and northern Mexico. It was spoken in the city of Tenochtitlán when Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs in 1521. In the early 16th century, the Aztec empire, also known as the Mexica empire, had control of around 5 to 6 million people.


Now back to chocolate. You might have heard that the famous Aztec leader Montezuma consumed chocolate, but he did so in a very different way than a modern person, who might nibble on a chocolate bar. The English word “chocolate” entered our language between 1595 and 1605. It comes from the Nahuatl word “xocolatl”— spelled x-o-c-o-l-a-t-l. This Nahuatl word comes from “xococ,” which means “sour, bitter,” plus “atl,” which means “water.” This origin gives us a clue as to how the Aztecs used chocolate. It was a bitter drink brewed with cacao beans. It was a frothy beverage, and it seems that Montezuma added vanilla and spices to it. 

The Aztecs weren’t the first to use chocolate, though. The Olmec people, who lived in Mesoamerica, first cultivated cacao plants around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. They believed that chocolate had “mystic qualities.” Interestingly, the Latin name for the cacao tree means “food of the gods.” The Olmec passed on knowledge of the cacao plant to the Maya, who then passed on a liking for chocolate to the Aztecs. And then the Spanish came. Spaniards spread the use of chocolate to other Europeans, who modified it for their tastes, until it became the chocolate that we typically enjoy today.

The first modern chocolate bar appeared in 1847, when the British company J.S. Fry & Sons created one using “cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar.” 


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.