Mexican X-plainer: Tacos, Not Tlahcos

A recent debate among friends on Twitter concerning what does and does not constitute a real tortilla got me thinking about people’s misguided understanding of the word “taco,” which I have seen some folx erroneously derive from the Nahuatl word “tlahco” or “tlacōtl.”

Tacos, not tlahcos.

Sorry, but no. “Tlahco” means “center,” “middle,” or “half.” Its meaning is born out in many compounds: (sash or “belt for one’s middle”), (moderate or “find in the middle”), tlahcotequi (“cut in halves”), (midnight or “middle of the night”), ( cacomistle or “half puma”), etc.

Tlahco was often employed to mean “person/thing in the middle.” Its main use was to describe the “middle child,” as with the goddess “Tlahco,” third of four aspects of Tlazōlteōtl. Her name is often translated “third daughter.” is a verb that literally means “s/he rises up in the middle,” but which was used to mean “s/he is the second or third child in the family.”

Then we have “tlacōtl” and its inalienable possessed form “-tlacōyo,” which mean “stem,” “stalk” or simply “stick.” There is no evidence that either “tlacōtl” or “tlahco” was ever used to describe rolled-up tortillas with food inside. Not a single attestation in the written record. These are simply fanciful folk etymologies.

Plus, “taco” predates the Conquest. The word and its derivatives had been in use for several hundred years when the Spanish arrived in the Americas. It was adopted from Old French “tache” (nail, peg) and its Old Northern French variant “taque,” both derived from Middle Low German “tacke” (“point,” related to English “tack”). “Tacke” has its origin in Proto-Germanic “takkô,” meaning “thorn” or “spike,” which itself can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root - (“to rip, tear”).

That takes us back about six thousand years.

Let’s return to Medieval Spanish. Two forms arose: “tacha” (“tack,” whence modern “tachuela”) and “taco” (“plug” or “dowel,” perhaps better known in Mexico in its diminutive form, “taquete”).

Taquetes. Little tacos.

The latter, in the augmentative, became “tacón,” used for a shoe heel. All these words imply “cylindrical shape.” Like a rolled-up tortilla.

During the same time that Spanish “tortilla” replaced Nahuatl “tlaxcalli,” the Spanish word “taco” came to stand for the ACTUAL word the Nahuah used for rolled-up tortillas —

. “Tortilla cylinders.”

You see it now, don’t you.

Codex listing different sorts of tortillas, including tlaxcalmimilli (rolled-up tortillas).

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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