Friday, May 7, 2010

The Whole Enchilada, Etymologically Speaking

Yes, this is a post about enchiladas running on Siete de Mayo. And yes, it would have been a lot more appropriate on Wednesday, Cinco de Mayo, the day when many Americans put limes in their beer without really knowing what’s being celebrated. But that would necessitate a level of planning that I’m barely capable of when it comes to my actual life much less regarding this blog in particular.

But enchiladas. Enchiladas? Yes, you love them. Everyone does.

Despite being a Mexican dish I’ve known about all my life, I’d never really considered where the word enchilada came from. Only this week did Spencer point out to me that the word is actually just the past participle of enchilar — literally the words for “in” and “chili” made into a verb that means “to season with chili” or “to add chili pepper to.” Back when I was taking Spanish in high school, the first verbal adjective I can remember learning was also a word people would be likely to see at a Mexican restaurant: cerrado, which would probably be hanging on the door facing the diners inside, which means “closed” and which is also a verbal adjective — a form of the verb cerrar. But all this time there was another one staring at me from just about every Mexican menu I’d ever seen: enchilada. (Why enchilada is feminine and cerrado masculine, however, I’m not sure.)

Aside from the usual “Oh, that’s why we call it that”-type realization, I enjoy that Spanish has a word specifically for the action of adding chili to something. (Enchilar, by the way, has two figurative meanings as well: “to sting” and “to become red in the face.”) I mean, sure, it makes sense that Spanish-speakers would have that word, since they’d be more likely to need to express that idea of adding chili than, say, a Swedish-speaker, but I’m in favor of any language having terribly specific vocabulary. And on that note, Spanish has another specific yet useful food-related verb: salpimentar, “to add salt and pepper to.” Now this is one I think just about every culture could benefit from. Really, why are we English-speakers wasting valuable seconds with extra syllables when the idea of putting salt and pepper on food could be mashed into a single verb?

¡Happy Siete de Mayo, everyone — and may your ever exclamation point be matched with an upside-down one!

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