I’ve received many variations on this question: “Shouldn’t ‘chocolate’ be ‘xocolate’? What happened to that ‘X’?”
The short answer is NO. There was never an “x.”
Don’t feel bad. I was once fooled, too.
Here we go.
Let’s head to the 1500s. “Chocolate” enters European languages (via Spanish) as a word describing a drink made from the cacao bean.
In Nahuatl, that bean was called “cacahuatl.” Mexican [Americans] may sit up at this point and say, “Uh, wait a minute. Isn’t that ‘peanut’?” Sorry, fellow cacahuateros (peanut lovers). Yes, Mexican Spanish uses “cacahuate” for peanut, but in Nahuatl that nut was a “tlālcacahuatl” (“earth cacao bean”).
“Cacahuatl” ultimately derives from a hypothetical Mixe-Zoquean word “kakawa,” which spread throughout Mesoamerica in the early post-Olmec period. Drop the absolutive suffix (-tl) of the Nahuatl word and its root/combining form becomes “cacahua-,” pronounced exactly /kakawa/. This ancient word gave us “cacao” (and “cocoa,” the confused variant that arose from conflation with “coco”).
“But,” I can hear someone object, “that doesn’t answer the question of chocolate vs. xocolate, genius.” No, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. Still, let’s take the whole “xocolatl” folk etymology on first, and then we’ll circle back to why “cacahuatl” matters.
For some, this is a bitter draught. Literally. People try to derive “chocolate” from either xococ (“bitter”) or xocalia (“to make something bitter or sour”) plus ātl (“water”). There are some major problems with this derivation. First, it requires an irregular change of /x/ to “ch.” If you’ve been reading the Mexican X series, you’ll realize that this shift is completely unprecedented. In Spanish, /x/ didn’t become “ch,” ever. The modern Spanish name would be “jocolate” if it evolved from “xocō[l]ātl.”
Furthermore, “xocolātl” is not directly attested and “xocol-” isn’t used in any compound nouns (it’s a verbal root that you’d expect to see in compound verbs). The Florentine Codex does have a mention of “bitter water/drink” in book 4, however: “in xococ ātl in ālchichic in tlahēlātl in ātzoātl.” Translated: “Acidic water, bitter water, salty water, dish water.” Here “xococ” is an adjective meaning “acidic” or “sour,” describing “ātl.”
That phrase refers to a drink, one elsewhere referred to by the compound “xocōātl.” No “l.” Colonial sources tell us that xocōātl was prepared by leaving corn dough soaking in water overnight to create an acidulous drink. It had many uses, including easing the pain of going pee for people with certain ailments.
Ángel María Garibay Kintana suggested that word could refer to any “vinegary fruit drink. Especially from cacao.” Though I don’t find other support for this claim, it is true that the word “xocotl” (jocote fruit) could mean broadly any fruit, so the compound “xocoātl” (different word, note the short “o”) would be “fruit-water.”
But no way, guys. “Chocolate” was not fermented cacao water, not from the descriptions we have. Plus, remember the lessons of the previous Mexican X articles? Basically, [š] or /ʃ/ doesn’t become [č] or /tʃ/ in any Nahuatl word except in two cases where the initial consonant influences the subsequent similar one. “Chālchihuitl” (emerald) comes from “chāl-” (rough) and “xihuitl” (turquoise). There’s also “chīlchōtl” (green chili) from “chīl-” (chili) and “exōtl” (green bean). In these cases, the initial [č] (/tʃ/) influences the following [š] /ʃ/. Only in this hypothetical “chocolātl” has Nahuatl /k/ ever influenced a preceding or following consonant. So, yeah, no.
“All right, you freaking know-it-all! What did the Nahuas call it at the time of the Conquest, then?”
Let’s start with the less common word: “cacahuaātl.” Literally “cacao water.” One attestation of the word is the phrase “chīlloh cacahuaātl.” a drink made of chili and cacao. But mainly folks in Ānāhuac just called it “cacahuatl” (kind of like we just call the drink “chocolate” in Mexican Spanish).
Here are some examples!
Florentine Codex, Book 6 (FCVI): “zan cacahuatl in quih” — they just drink chocolate.
FCXI: “Xōchyoh niqui in cacahuatl.” — I drink flower-infused chocolate.
FCIX: “cualli cacahuatl, teōnacazzoh” — good chocolate, spiced with “sacred earflower” or “flor de oreja” [Cymbopetalum penduliflorum].
FCXI “Nictlīlxōchihuia in cacahuatl. tlīlxōchyoh niqui.” — I blend vanilla with the chocolate; I drink it with vanilla flowers.
Got it? Good. I know you’re getting impatient. I can almost hear you muttering, “So where did ‘chocolate’ come from, damn it?!?”
Hang on. Let’s discredit a couple of options first. One truly dumb idea is that Catholic priests distorted “cacahuatl” into “chocolate” to avoid saying “caca.” WHAT ABOUT CACAHUATE, MENSOS? Gah.
Others suggest it’s a blend of the Yucatec Mayan word for “hot” & the Nahuatl word for “water.” Ignoring the fact that Nahuas also drank it cold, 1) there’s no attestation, 2) such blends are super rare, & 3) “hot” is “choco” in Yucateco, not “chocol.” Where’s the “l” from?
“Chocolate” was definitely the form by the late 16th century. In 1577, Francisco Hernández, discussing various indigenous Mexican drinks, mentions “chocóllatl,” made from ceiba kernels, cacao beans and maize, which Nahuas would drink lukewarm to fatten up and to treat tuberculosis. In Acosta’s History of the West Indies (1604) we find “The chiefe vse of this cacao is in a drinke which they call Chocolate.” In November 1664, Samuel Pepys writes in his journal that he was gone to “a Coffee-house, to drink jocolatte, very good.”
But the first attestation of “chocolātl” in Nahuatl is from the 18 century, suggesting it was re-borrowed into the Colonial versions of the language.
OKAY, GUYS! Ready to get some answers at last?
The big clue is in HOW chocolate was (and still is, some places) made. It was beaten till it frothed up, using a device like this:
This “molinillo” or “chocolate beater” was called a “chihcōlli” in Nahuatl (adopted into many other indigenous Mesoamerican languages). The action of beating? “Chihcōloa” (in Southern Mexico today, “chicolear” is a verb describing this whipping of chocolate into a froth). The drink prepared with with it? “Chihcōlātl.”
That’s what researchers found as a variant form of “chocolātl” in towns such as Ocotepec in Morelos, Ameyaltepec in Guerrero, and Cuetzalan in Veracruz (Orizaba Nahuatl uses “chikolatl” to this day). Elsewhere, the hypothesis goes, “chihcōlātl” apparently underwent a process of vocal harmony, common in Nahuatl, giving rise to “chocolatl.”
Vocal harmony, by the way, is what makes the prefix combinations “tic-” (you-it) and “nic-” (I-it) become “toc-” and “noc-” before the directional prefix “on-” (away from speaker). For example, compare “niccaqui” (I hear it) to “noconcaqui” (I go there to hear it; I hear it there). The “i” is influenced by the subsequent “o.” Just like here.
The upshot is that chocolate could just as easily have been “chicolate.” Weird.
Major props to Karen Ilse Dakin Anderson (Seminario de Lenguas Indígenas, UNAM) and Søren Wichmann (Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, Leiden University) for figuring this out in their article “Cacao and Chocolate: A Uto-Aztecan Perspective,” published in 2000
Keep in mind, however, that there’s no Colonial-era attestation for “chihcōlātl.” It’s just the most etymologically sound derivation. Even Terrence Kaufman and John Justeson, in their epic refutation of big chunks of Dakin and Wichmann’s “cacao” hypothesis (that it derives from proto-Nahuatl), had to agree that it makes the most sense out of all the proposed derivations.
At the end of the day, however, I know that there is something uniquely empowering and de-colonizing about writing “xocolate.”
Political solidarity and identity aren’t always about historical or linguistic facts.
If you want to use the “x,” go for it. In fact: HELL, YES.
I’ll close by sharing the most bad-ass thing of all about “cacahuatl” / cacao. The Nahuas had a perfect difrasismo (kenning/doubled metaphor) for it:
In yōllohtli in eztli … the heart, the blood.
If you like this, check out the other two entries in this “Mexican X” series: