“The suffix ‘naut’ comes from the Greek and Latin words for ships and sailing. Astronaut suggests ‘a sailor in space.’ Chimponaut suggests ‘a chimpanzee in sailor pants’.”
― Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
I was craving guacamole the other day and was forwarded this article concerning the origins of the words avocado and guacamole.
On avocado: According to Scott at Today I Found Out, “the word avocado comes from a Nahuatl Indian (Aztec) word ahuácatl, meaning testicle” and furthermore that “in Spanish, ahuácatl became aguacate and eventually avocato and then avocado“.
Here is the first known written source of avocado in English:
1697 W. Dampier New Voy. around World vii. 203 The Avogato Pear-tree is as big as most Pear-trees..the Fruit as big as a large Lemon.
While it may be true that ahuácatl means testicle, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word did not transform into aguacate or avocato. Instead, avocado, which already existed, was a popular substitution. This means that we have a case of two forms which could have run concurrently but the avocato form won in layman’s circles over the more scientific aguacate. Ahuácatl didn’t morph into avocato, though there are the words aguacat and avocat in French, which are quite similar. Another similar form in English includes avigato and some sources suggest this could be the source of alligator (as in alligator pear, another name for Persea gratissima).
In sum, the word avocado we use today has a form that does not reflect the etymology we will see below, of guacamole.
Guacamole, on the other hand, is a different case. The article I linked above would have guacamole take its origins from “Nahuatl Indian ahuacamolli, which is compounded from ahuácatl and molli, the latter word meaning ‘sauce’ or ‘soup'”. Unfortunately, this takes for granted that ahuácatl comes from the word for testicle.
There is an excellent Nahuatl dictionary here, which suggests that the form “auacamulli” dates all the way back to 1571, and we can’t forget that guacamole comes into English only through Spanish.
A search through the Nahuatl dictionary reveals among the occurrences of guacamole or ahuacamolli one source that provides “testicle” as a possible definition for the word, and it is by Frances Karttunen (An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl). By the way, one reviewer of this dictionary lauds Karttunen for fixing the trouble of having to go through Spanish or French to work on Nahuatl because this finally gives a great resource for working on the language through English.
I’m no Nahuatl expert, but the De Molina text from the 16th century focuses on the, shall we say, more edible/botanical aspect of the ahuacatl.
So, yes, avocado could have come from a word meaning testicle, but the testicle-type word wasn’t used to describe the fruit in Spanish, only the guacamole, as far as I can see. Go ahead and order the Baja Chili Salad at Wendy’s, hold the testicle juice, and tell them it’s in the name of linguistics.