"Chocolate" came into the English language via the Spanish word, chocolate (chuck-o-LAH-tay). (Click on the colored words in this paragraph to hear the native pronunciations.) The Spanish pronunciation of the word differs quite a bit from English, even though the two share the same spelling.

As we travel back further into the history of the word, we discover that the Spanish in Spain got both the word and the actual product from the early Spanish explorers who visited what is now modern Mexico. The Spanish explorers, in turn, got the word from the indigenous Aztecs, who called it xocolatl (shuck-O-lahtl) in their native tongue, Nahuatl (NAH-wahtl), still spoken by several million Mexicans today. Xocolatl is a compound word composed of xocolli, meaning "bitter", and atl, meaning "water".

The Cacao Tree

Chocolate is made from the bean of the Cacao Tree. It's a small tree that needs rich, well-drained soil. Its natural habitat is located within 20 degrees either side of the equator. Lots of rain and warm weather are necessary for it to thrive. Cacao trees cannot tolerate a temperature lower than 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).

Cacao Tree with beans


While this Aztec derivation of our modern word "chocolate" certainly sounds plausible, some linguists beg to differ. They

believe that the first part of the compound word above, xoco-, came from chocol-, a special wooden stick used to prepare an unsweetened chocolate drink. To muddy the waters further, others believe that xoco- is actually a loanword from the Mayan language, where it means "hot," thus giving the compound word the meaning "hot water," rather than "bitter water." Both meanings make sense, since the drink was both hot and stirred with a wooden stick. And unsweetened chocolate, as you well know if you've ever tried to eat it, is very bitter.

Finally, in their book, The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe (Thames and Hudson, 1996) propose yet another etymology. Their derivation is based on one of the Mayan languages (of which there are several), rather than on the Nahuatl of the Aztec. In Yucatec Mayan, the word for "chocolate drink" is chacau haa. The authors propose that the Spanish explorers borrowed chocol, a variation of chacau, from a Mayan dialect and added atl from the Aztec word we encountered above. Convoluted? Certainly. They base their theory on certain historical assumptions that are too involved to discuss here. If you're interested, you can glean the details from their book, which is now available in paperback.

So who's right? As you may already have surmised, we'll never know. Then again, perhaps someday the time travel of science fiction will become science fact, and we'll be able ask the 15th century Aztecs and Mayans in person. But I'm not holding my breath!

At the beginning of our brief journey, I promised you some chocolate sustenance. Here are three of my own unpublished recipes that I enjoy making for family and friends:
xocolatl xocolatl xocolatl
Larry's Chocolate Tea Larry's Chocolate Cookies Larry's Chocolate Turtles

1 Bigelow Earl Grey tea bag
1 cup boiling water (preferably
1 tablespoon clover honey
1/4 cup Nestle's semi-sweet
chocolate chips

Brew tea for 5 minutes. Add honey, stirring well. Add chocolate chips and stir until chips are melted and fully blended (about 1 minute). Some chocolate dregs will accumulate at the bottom of your mug/cup as you drink. This will make for a wonderful, chocolaty conclusion to your chocolate tea experience.
Note 1: It is important to use the brands mentioned in the recipe. Using substitutes will change the flavor considerably.
Note 2: The distinctive aroma and flavor of Earl Grey is imparted by the rind of a little known citrus fruit (Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia). Since it's not widely available, a good substitute, if you want to try flavoring your tea with bergamot, is dried Monarda (Bergamot) leaves. Click on photos below for more information.

Wild Bergamot

Monarda 'Petite Wonder'

1 cup butter (no substitutes)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
8 oz. cream cheese (not low
2 eggs
3 3/4 cups flour, sifted
4 cups Nestle chocolate
chips, melted
1 12 oz. tub of Cool Whip
(not low fat)

Melt chocolate chips and set aside to cool. Cream butter, sugars, and cream cheese. Add eggs and beat until well blended. Add melted chocolate chips and flour and mix well. Fold in Cool Whip and mix until just blended. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough on greased cookie sheets. Top with chocolate chips. Bake at 350o for 5-7 minutes. Cool thoroughly before removing from sheet with spatula. Cookies should be thin, delicate, and light, with a crispy bottom. Do not stack cookies. Letting the cookies age several days makes them even tastier. Makes 4-5 dozen.
Note 1: The absence of baking soda/powder in this recipe is deliberate. I've been disappointed so many times because the flavor of the soda in the cookie overpowers the chocolate.
Note 2: The dough is so tasty, I occasionally reserve some and serve it as a chocolate mousse. (Use discretion, as this dish contains raw eggs.)

1 cup butter (no substitutes)
1 box light brown sugar (scant
2 cups)
1 cup light Karo syrup
1 14-oz. can sweetened
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of salt
2 12-oz. packages Nestles
Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/2 slab paraffin
4 cups pecans

Melt butter in heavy 3-quart saucepan. Add brown sugar and salt, stirring until well-combined. Add corn syrup, mixing well. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly. Cook and stir over medium heat to firm ball stage (220o). Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Add pecans and mix well. Place tablespoons of the mixture on well-greased cookie sheet (takes about 4 cookie sheets). Put in freezer until hard (about 30 min.). Melt chips and paraffin in double boiler, stirring to blend. Using tongs, dip frozen caramel-nut lumps into chocolate mixture until well-coated and return to cookie sheets. Allow to cool thoroughly before serving.

Luscious turtle

To View a photo of Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia, click here

Thumbnail photo: Chocolate Fountain Hire, Perth, Australia
Wild Bergamot photo: ladyanne
Monarda photo: henryr10
Cacao Tree with beans: Wikipedia

Links to related DG articles
Chocolate and Cocoa
Hot Chocolate? Hot Cocoa?
Yet to come:
Inspiration in the Chocolate Garden
The Chocolate Mimosa
Searching for Chocolate Daisy
Chocolate Lily Is a Wildflower Treat
A Chocolate Garden

*A further complication is the word 'Xocoatl,' which some sources use in place of 'Xocolatl.' Other sources ascribe to 'Xocoatl' the meaning "a beverage made from maize.'

© Larry Rettig 2009