By Dr Oliver Tearle
Anyone who has eaten an avocado has, at least etymologically speaking, eaten a testicle. How is this so? Let’s delve into the curious origins of the word for the fruit, avocado and see how they got bound up with the world of the legal profession and with male genitalia.
The word for avocado stems from the Aztec word ahuacatl, meaning literally ‘testicle’, because the shape of the fruit was thought to resemble the shape of a testicle. We say ‘the Aztec word’, but strictly speaking, the language is named Nahuatl. That’s the language the Aztecs in north America spoke.
The Nahuatl word ahuacatl was substituted by the Spanish word for ‘advocate’, possibly to conceal the original, testicular meaning.
This is all oddly fitting, though, because the word testicle is itself derived from the Latin testis meaning ‘witness’, supposedly because a man’s testicles are the ‘witness’ or proof of his virility and manhood. And if you testify in court, you are bearing witness to someone or something (usually without involving your testicles in the proceedings).
The Nahuatl language has given us a whole range of other words now in common use in English-speaking countries, including cacao, chili, chipotle, chocolate, guacamole, mezcal, and tomato. So, we have the Aztecs to thank for quite a few of our favourite food words (and the foods themselves, many of which they first harvested or developed).
But we also have the Aztecs to thank for the word coyote and, probably, the word shack for a log cabin: it’s thought to come from the Nahuatl word xacalli.
The avocado is sometimes known as the alligator pear, because its shape also resembles the pear (more than it does the testicle, we’ll go so far as to venture), and curiously enough, in English the term alligator pear entered the language one year earlier than avocado: we find alligator pear in use in 1696, whereas avocado only turns up a year later.
Meanwhile, the use of the word avocado to refer to the shade of green only first surfaces in the 1940s, before becoming ubiquitous in British bathrooms throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The word ‘orchid’ also means testicle. It comes from the Greek orkhis, and was named for the shape of the tuberous root of the plant.
While we’re down in the trouser area, the word ‘pencil’ stems from the Latin penicillum which means ‘paintbrush’: the drug penicillin was so named because the mould cells were thought to resemble little paintbrushes. But penicillum itself goes ultimately back to penis, which in Latin meant either ‘tail’ or, well, the same as it means in modern English.
The word ‘avocado’ was introduced into English by William Dampier (1651-1715), the man who was also the first (in 1697) to describe to the West a ‘large hopping animal’ he’d encountered on his travels in Australia. Thus he was the first man to describe a kangaroo to the English. Contrary to another widely held belief, the word ‘kangaroo’ does not mean ‘I don’t know’. It was a local Aboriginal word for a particular kind of kangaroo.
Dampier is cited more than 1,000 times in the Oxford English Dictionary, and, as well as bringing us the word ‘avocado’, also introduced the words barbecue, breadfruit, cashew, chopsticks, kumquat, and tortilla into English.