Sorry, it is cacao, not cocoa

Until 1755 British people spoke of cacao, just like the rest of the world. So, why did they change their pronunciation of this magical food?

How popular was chocolate actually in 1755? Probably more widespread than you would have expected. Nobody had ever seen a chocolate bar yet. That would still take another hundred years. But chocolate as a hot drink was a well-known and exquisite delicacy in the higher societies in the West.

It all started when Spanish traders brought the first official shipment of cacao beans from Veracruz to Sevilla in 1585. The beans had already been introduced to the Spanish court before. Dominican priests visited Prince Philip in Spain with a delegation of Mayan nobles from Alta Verapaz in Guatemala. Among the items that they brought along was also cacao. But it was as from 1585 that cacao became a trade and a treat in Spain steadily.

The Spanish just copied the recipe from the Mayas. They roasted and ground the beans and then mixed it with chiles, some other spices and hot water. The first hot chocolate drinks in Europe. But the Spanish, known for their sweet tooth, added one new ingredient: sugar. It is also shown in the very first recipe for a chocolate drink ever published. In 1644, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma made the recipe accessible to a broader audience in his book A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Besides the sugar and the beans, the chocolate drink contained chiles, anise, vanilla, cinnamon, almonds or hazelnuts, annatto seeds and something called ‘ear flower’ (Orejuela).

All the time the Spanish also directly copied the words for chocolate and cacao from the Aztecs and the Mayas. According to many, chocolate finds its origin in the Aztec word xocoatl. In the Nahuatl language (Nahuatl is a group of languages from the Uto-Aztec language family) xocoatl was formerly spoken as cacahuatl, a combination of cacahua (cacao) and atl (water).  There is, however, a theory that the origin of chocolate is chikolatl (for this read the highly entertaining blog of Magnus Pharao Hansen).

Before I finally go to 1755 when suddenly the British decided to become stubborn and write cocoa stead of cacao, let me describe the world of 1755 and even more the world of cacao back then. Maybe the publication of Colmenero de Ledesma was responsible for this but in the following hundred years drinking hot chocolate became very popular amongst the higher societies across Europe. Chocolate houses came up, like coffee shops nowadays. The chiles in the recipes however disappareared. They were still mentioned in a pubblished recipe in 1692 by the French M. St. Disdier who listed hot water, cacao, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and a tiny bit of powdered cloves and chiles. But in the mid-1700’s chiles were banned.

So, what happened in 1755? The word cacao was widespread across the whole European continent as the fitting description of an essential ingredient of the immensely popular hot chocolate drink. As I mentioned previously, the word cacao was also more or less copied from the Mayan and Olmec languages in Meso-America. Many languages in that area have more or less the same pronunciation for cacao: kakawa (Mazahua, proto-Zoquean, Nahuatl); kakaw (proto-Mixean, Sayula, Tseltal, K’iche, classic Mayan). So, in their chocolate houses and coffee houses, the whole of Europe pronounced cacao as cacao, not as cocoa.

Until that day that Samuel Johnson published his dictionary of the English language in 1755. In his notes, he maintained the distinction between the words cacao and coco, and between the cacao tree and the coco palm. But by some editorial or printing error, the two words were combined and printed in the same dictionary as cocoa. And from that moment on the British took the dictionary as the holy bible of the English language and based their pronunciation of the ‘food of gods’ (as the Meso-Americans described the beans) on a mistake. Poor British.

So next time when you hear somebody saying cocoa stead of cacao, and you have the guts, please point them out – but be gentle – that their whole cocoa life has been based on a mistake.

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