Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A mole by any other name

Last week MrsK tried a new recipe for something called Turkey Mole. I had never met the word mole in a culinary context – though the fact that one of the ingredients was chocolate should have alerted me to the likelihood of a South American origin.

New words are like buses, you spend years not meeting a word and then two come along at once. In Saturday's Times Giles Coren  was reviewing a restaurant specializing in Mexican food, and he mentioned that one of the dishes came with a mole. I knew what it was,  just-in-time,  and tried to find other related words. Staying in South America, guacamole is a sort of mole – so there was another mole, hiding in plain sight.

Could this be related to our molars – the grinding teeth? Everyday English doesn't have any other word that preserves the "o" in a grinding word (as do Spanish and Italian [moler/molere] and no doubt many others. In French, it's become "ou" in moulin (and even the most monoglottally Anglophone will have met this in the trade-name  Moulinex). In English and German, different leaves of the PIE tree, we have mill and Mühle.
Another way of smashing things up to release the flavour (apart from grinding, that is) is pounding or crushing, and words related to that are derived from the Latin pestare. The most obvious derivative from this is pesto, made with a pestle. This shows how a word that refers to a process can come to be used to refer to a sauce made with that process.
Detail of the image in that video
But let's look more closely at that derivation of guacamole.   I knew before that avocado, the main constituent of  guacamole, is nothing to do with the similar-looking advocacy. Rather, it derives from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl (Nahuatl being the language spoken by the Aztecs).
Watch the video here  to see that avocado means testicle – presumably because of the way they hang.
But I had no idea until the last weekend in February that the "guaca-" of guacamole derived from ahuacatl.  Etymonline says:

So, it all looks pleasingly neat: Sp. moler, Pg moer, It. molere, Prov. molre, Cat. modre. Eng. mill, Ger. Mühle, Nahuatl molli ...{?} Hang on though, not so fast. Why should the language of the Aztecs (which pre-dates the Spanish which didn't begin to taint it until the late 15th century)  have anything to do with a PIE language? This is inviting further investigation, though I suspect the seeming relatedness between words to do with grinding (which on the analogy of pesto can  be used to refer to a sauce made with that process) and the Nahuatl molli is illusory and accidental. Shame....  Very probably molli has as much to do with grinding as ahuacatl has to do with advocacy.


PS – A couple of clues:
  • Bi-polar longing to spill the beans. (6)
  • Deserving opprobrium about sort of tail wrapped round first of belligerents. (13)

Update: 2018.06.04.12:05 – Added PPS


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