From California we cross America’s southern border into a country whose etymological contributions to our language include a dog, a sauce, a chilli pepper, and – if legend is to be believed – a clapped-out old car.
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The Chihuahua dog is the offspring of Mexico’s Chihuahua state, where the breed has been selectively developed over centuries from the techichi, the favoured dog of the ancient Toltec people. Sisal, a fibre often used to make ropes and twine, is obtained from an agave plant of the same name, which in turn takes its name from a port in Mexico’s Yucatan region from where it was once widely exported. And Tabasco sauce takes its name from the southern state of Tabasco – despite the fact that it was invented in Louisiana in the early 1800s. One of the sauce’s main ingredients is the Tabasco pepper, a variety of chilli pepper native to southern Mexico that is said to have been introduced to the USA by an Irish-born New Orleans plantation owner named Maunsel White.
The jalapeno pepper is another of Mexico’s contributions to the dictionary, although its origins are a little less obvious. At the root of its name is the Mexican city of Xalapa, or Jalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, a hundred and fifty miles east of Mexico City. The city’s name in turn derives from an Aztec word essentially meaning ‘the sand by the water’ – and the state of Veracruz, appropriately enough, forms one long strip of land along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Long before the jalapeno pepper had English diners reaching for the ice water, the chilli peppers grown in Jalapa were used to make a strong purgative drug that was introduced to Europe in the seventeenth century as the purga de Jalapa, or jalap. Its earliest known description in English dates back to 1675, when the botanist Nehemiah Grew neatly outlined its effectiveness as a purgative:
Jalap hath a special property of irritating the glandulous parts of the mouth, and throat; we may gather, that it is a better purge to all the other glandulous parts than most other catharticks. Which is also one reason of its operation, for the most part, with at least a tendency to vomit; the stomach it self being glandulous as well as the throat, and thereby answerably affected with it.
And that was all the jalapeno had to offer the language for the next three centuries, until the first jalapenos began to arrive in the mid 1900s – although depending on your taste for spicy food, Nehemiah Grew’s description above might be just as applicable today as it was back then.
So long as etymological legend is to be believed, however, it isn’t just the jalapeno that we can thank the city of Jalapa for. Another theory claims that the word jalopy, meaning ‘a worn-out car’, takes its name from a corruption of Jalapa.
According to the story, battered old cars from the United States found a market for themselves in the south of Mexico, and ultimately many US vehicles ended up being sent to the area around Jalapa where they could be renovated and sold on, or else plundered for parts, or sold for scrap. Jalapa, among the English-speaking dealers who oversaw the trade across the border, gave rise to the slang name jalopy in the 1920s, which before long had established itself as a term for any clapped-out vehicle, useful only for scrap or parts.
That’s just a theory, however – and there certainly are others.
If not derived from Jalapa, perhaps jalopy might derive from chaloupe, a French name for a small sailboat – although quite why that word should have been hauled up onto dry land and applied to a dilapidated car is unclear. A more plausible theory links jalopy to a Yiddish word, shlepn, meaning ‘to drag’ (from which the word schlep is derived), or else shlappe, meaning ‘an old horse’. Perhaps jalopy is an English corruption of the Spanish word for ‘tortoise’, galápago, or else the Italian word for ‘squanderer’, dilapidatore, in the sense that a worn-out car needs ever more cash spent on it to maintain its roadworthiness. But of all the possible theories perhaps the best -though also perhaps the least likely – is that it represents a muddled blend of the word jelly-apple, a sweet treat once sold by Italian-American immigrants from rickety wooden carts.
Maunsel White developed his own spicy sauce, called ‘1812’, which he first served at a banquet celebrating his friend Andrew Jackson’s victory in the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans. The invention of modern Tabasco sauce, however, is credited to Maryland-born banker Edmund McIlhenny, who developed his own recipe – likely inspired by White’s, and using the Tabasco peppers he introduced from Mexico – in the mid 1860s. The McIlhenny Company still manufactures official Tabasco sauce to this day.