Nearly anywhere you go, a certain combination of trumpets and violins will elicit a similar response: listeners will immediately think of Mexico, overcome with an urge to throw a hat onto the ground and spin around.
What is this song and dance? It’s called the “jarabe tapatío,” a pretty unusual name. Shall we examine its etymology? Heck, yes, we shall.
Let’s take “jarabe” first. It derives from Medieval Spanish “xarabe,” from Andalusian Arabic “šarāb,” the same as Classical Arabic شَرَاب meaning “wine” (but also fruit juice, syrup, or sherbet).*
That word is formed from the Arabic root [š-r-b] which generates words concerning drinking or sipping. It’s likely related to Ancient Egyptian “j-r-p.”
As I have documented again and again in my Mexican X series, Medieval Spanish “x” (pronounced “sh”) changed during the great sibilant shift. The “x” evolved into the aspirated h-like sound of modern Spanish during the 15th and 16th centuries. That’s why Ladino has “sharope,” Portuguese and Galician “xarope,” Catalan “xarop,” Basque “ziropa,” etc. But Spanish starts the word with a “j” (representing the IPA /x/, like German “ch”).
From its sense in Spanish as a fruit-based syrup, “jarabe” came to mean a medicinal potion, one made by cooking sugar in water until it thickens, adding herbs, extracts, juices, etc. By the 15th century, this notion of “mélange” was used in a metaphorical way in Andalusia:
It refered to a style of music and dance that blended several traditions: the jarabe gitano. That genre made its way to Colonial New Spain, where it flourished and variegated, reaching arguably its purest, most Mexican form in the 19th century in the “jarabe tapatío.”
Arising in Guadalajara, the dance features women dressed in the “China Poblana” style (itself a product of the multicultural mixture that is Mexico), who reject the advances of men dressed as charros, until they wind up tapping around the charros’ hats (hence the common moniker “Mexican Hat Dance”).
But why “tapatío”? It’s the term used for a person from Guadalajara and an adjective for things from Guadalajara or the Jalisco highlands. There’s a lot of debate around its meaning. To understand the likely origin, let’s consider the Classical Nahuatl word “tlapatiyōtl.”
“Tlapatiyōtl” means “[high] price paid for something; value / worth; something or someone of great worth.” It comes from the verb “patiyōtia” meaning “to pay for something or to raise its price,” from the noun “patitl”— “price, value for exchange or barter.”
Apparently “tlapatiyōtl” was pronounced “tapatíotl” in the variant of Western Nahuatl spoken in Guadalajara, becoming “tapatío” in Spanish.**
So the next time you hear those trumpets & violins, remember that this is “šarāb tlapatiyōtl,” the “priceless wine” in which Arabic and Caló and Nahuatl blend together into a perfectly Mexican medicine for the soul.
And dance, if you feel the urge.
*The Arabic word also gave English several terms. The most obvious is “syrup,” from Middle English “sirup,” adopted from Old French “sirop,” an evolution of Medieval Latin siruppus, which was a direct borrowing from Arabic.
But also “sherbet” and “sorbet.”
Sherbet is a borrowing from Turkish, whose “şerbet,” was taken from Persian شربت (šarbat), itself adopted from Arabic “šarba” (a drink of something, variant of šarāb). And “sorbet” is the same Turkish word filtered through Old Italian (sorbetto) and French.
The English words “shrab” or “shrub” (meaning a sort of vinagre-like fruit drink, historically alcoholic) come from the related širāb, by the way.
**Interestingly, the first grammar of Nahuatl other than Classical ever published was Guerra’s 1692 Arte de la lengua mexicana, which focused on this Western variety).