Mexican X-plainer: Papas or Patatas?


Try to imagine life as a Spanish speaker without that word.

But, wait. WHICH papa are we talking about? And why do some folks say “patata”?

Hrm. Time to go down the rabbit hole. You with me?

Vamos, pues.

So, as you may know, potatoes are called “patatas” in Spain and a few other places (and “papas” nearly everywhere else).

“Potato” and “patata” both come from the Taíno word “batata,” meaning “sweet potato.” In fact, “batata” still means that in some dialects of Spanish (though the word “camote,” from Nahuatl “camohtli,” has given it a real run for its money).

Now, the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española lists “patata” as a blend of “papa” + “batata,” but that seems unnecessary. As with many indigenous languages, the Taíno “b” was probably articulated a lot like a “p.” It was an early evolution: Cortés used the word “patata” in his Cartas de Relación:

“Los mantenimientos que tienen es maíz y algunos ajís como los de las otras islas, y patata yuca, así como la que comen en la isla de Cuba, y cómenla asada porque no hacen pan de ella.”

From the context, he appears to mean sweet potatoes, eaten baked (rather than made into flour).

“Patata” continues to be a synonym of “batata” as late as 1600, when Luis de Góngora y Argote writes these lines:

“y por postre vna patata
con dos limas de conserba.
Comió tanto de lo dulse
que le dio vn dolor de muelas”

Patata for dessert, with lime, sweet enough to give a toothache.

And in 1737, it still means sweet potato when Gregorio Mayans y Siscar writes the following in his Orígenes de la lengua española:

“patata que es la raíz dulce tan conocida de todos, después que en Málaga ha provado tan bien”

A sweet root, known to everyone.

However, over the next century, Spain began to use “patata” for “potato.” Its flour was use together with or instead of wheat flour, according to the Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País (San Sebastián) in 1779:

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In 1781, Volume 39 of the magazine ECO details the introduction of “patata” to the crops of a town to ensure people are well fed:

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A writer in 1876 discusses smoking potato leaves (tobacco plant is related to the potato plant):

“Tabaco económico. [Se] ha descubierto que las hojas de patata, secadas convenientemente, dan un tabaco superior al ordinario por su sabor y perfume.”

Don’t try this at home.

A quick sidebar. The English word “potato” was taken from Spanish “patata.” It referred to the sweet potato until the “papa” reached England in the 1590s.

That’s when terminology got complicated.

At first, “papas” were known as “Virginia potatoes” or “bastard potatoes.”

As “papas” became popular throughout the British Isles (especially in Ireland), “bastard” and “Virginia” were dropped. To solve the resulting confusion, people started referring to “batatas” with the modified phrase “SWEET potatoes.”

Elsewhere (and in Spain before this evolution of “patata”), the most common word for “potato” has been “papa,” borrowed from the Quechua “papa.”

This makes sense as POTATOES COME FROM PERU.

Pre-Colombian Incan Potato Varieties.

Think about it. A HUGE staple of humans’ diet is the lasting impact of the Incas.

(Europeans were initially very suspicious of the potato. But over the centuries it would become synonymous with good old-fashioned European cuisine. Meat and potatoes, anyone? But like tomatoes and corn, potatoes are wholly indigenous.)

Initially, the difference between “papas” and “patatas” seemed pretty clear, as in the 1590 Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta, in which the two are sharply contrasted:

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So … if you think you’re SPECIAL because you say “patata” instead of “papa,” think again.

If we really want to respect the culture and people that cultivated them from skinny little finger-shaped things into multiple delicious varieties, we should say “papa,” IMO.

Speaking of food, it’s very common to ask little children if they want “papa.” But we don’t mean potatoes. We mean … just food, in general. And, in fact, we use the word with other adults! ¡Es hora de la papa! Time to eat!

Is that papa related to the Quechua word?

Actually, no. It’s from Latin.

The Latin “pappa” was “kiddie talk,” supposedly the word infants used for food. There was a related verb, pappāre (kiddie talk for “to eat”).

Its origin isn’t clear. It may be a nursery word of imitative origin or come from the Proto-Indo-European root *pa (“eat, feed”), which gave rise to Latin words like pāscō, pastor, pābulum, pābulor (all related to eating or food).

You can compare pappa/papa with English “pap,” Portuguese “papar,” Bulgarian “papam,” Serbo-Croatian “papati,” German “Pappe,” and Czech “papat.”

Pablum. Soft food for kids.

This Latinate “papa” also came to mean “nonsense, trifle, foolishness” in Spanish. Eventually this gave rise to one of my favorite sayings: “No entiendo ni papa” or “I don’t understand a darn thing [you said].”

Now, I can’t wrap up this discussion of “papa” without mentioning … well … el Papa. The Pope.

That “papa” isn’t Quechua. Nor does it derive from “pappa.” Instead, it’s borrowed from Ecclesiastical Latin “papas,” from Ancient Greek “pápas,” meaning “bishop, patriarch.” The Greek was a variant of “páppas,” or “father.”

It was first a term for any Catholic bishop. But during the 11th century, it was restricted to just the bishop of Rome, the Pope.

The folk etymology that says PAPA stands for Petri Apostoli Potestatem Accipiens (“Accepting the power of the Apostle Peter”) is clearly wrong. But people do love their silly acronym theories.

Anyway, now you know. If a papá offers papa to his toddler as they watch el Papa on TV, and the kid insists on papas fritas … well, that’s just a linguistic delight, isn’t it?

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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