Influence of Nahuatl on Mexican Spanish

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Spanish spoken in Mexico is the prevalence of words derived from the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. Indeed, many such words are still in widespread use,especially words that refer to classes of things for which no word existed in Spanish at the time the Spaniards first came into contact with the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Such words can be lumped into four broad categories:

  1. Words that refer to animals
    • coyote
    • zopilote - vulture
    • chapulín - grasshopper
    • tecolote - owl
    • guajolote - turkey
  2. Words that refer to plants, fruits, or vegetables
    • elote - corn on the cob
    • cacahuate - peanut
    • camote - sweet potato
    • ejote - green bean
    • tomate - tomato
  3. Words that refer to foods and beverages
    • chocolate - chocolate
    • chicle - gum
  4. Words that refer to articles in domestic life
    • popote - drinking straw
    • papalote - kite
    • mecate - rope
    • tianguis - open air market
    • jacal - shack
  5. Other words derived from Nahuatl
    • petaca - suitcase
    • escuincle - child
    • tlapalería - hardware store
    • chante - home
    • chapopote - tar

Síganme los buenos

The influence of Nahuatl is also evident in the popular culture of Mexico. Many of the words incorporated into Spanish from Nahuatl have evolved and now have a different meaning than the original word from which they were derived. For example, the word cuate, which originally meant faternal twin, is now used in a broader sense to refer to a friend or even a dude or a guy. The word chapulín or grasshopper is probably most widely associated with the name of a superhero that appears in the very popular T.V. sitcom El Chapulín Colorado.

In some cases, words of Nahuatl origin are employed in dichos or sayings used in a figurative sense to express a moral or universal truth. For example:

The use of words of Nahuatl origin in popular expressions are too numerous to recount them all here. Another example is the expression estar como agua para chocolate. Since water must be heated to make hot chocolate, this expression is used as a way of saying that a person is really angry. Thus, estoy como agua para chocolate means I am really angry. The expression can also be used in a completely different context to say that someone has the hots for someone else in a romantic or even sexual sense.