By Stefan Struik
Until 1755 British people spoke of cacao, just like the rest of the world. So why did they change their pronunciation of this exquisite food? Is the word cocoa just a typo? How popular was chocolate really in that period? Its popularity was more widespread than you probably would expect even though no one had ever seen a chocolate bar yet. That would still take another hundred years. But chocolate as a hot drink was a well-known and exquisite delicacy among high society in the West.
SPANISH COURTING CACAO
It all started when Spanish traders brought the first official shipment of cacao beans from Veracruz to Sevilla in 1585. Dominican priests visited Prince Philip in Spain with a delegation of Mayan nobles from Alta Verapaz in Guatemala. Among the items that they brought with them was cacao. However, it was not until 1585 that cacao became a widely and steadily traded treat in Spain.
SPANISH CACAO RECIPES
The Spanish merely copied the recipe given to them by the Mayans. They first roasted and ground the beans. Then they mixed this with chilis, some other spices, and hot water to create the first hot chocolate drinks in Europe. The Spanish, however, were known for their collective sweet tooth. So they added one new ingredient: sugar.
You can read this also in the very first recipe for a chocolate drink that was ever published. In 1644 Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma made the recipe accessible to a broader audience in his book, A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. In addition to the sugar and the beans, the chocolate drink contained much more: chilis, anise, vanilla, cinnamon, almonds or hazelnuts, annatto seeds, and something called “ear flower” (orejuela). As well as copying their recipes, the Spanish also directly copied the words for chocolate and cacao from the Aztecs and the Mayans.
According to many references, chocolate finds its origin in the Aztec word xocoatl. In the Nahuatl language (a group of languages from the Uto-Aztec language family), xocoatl was formerly pronounced as cacahuatl. This is a combination of cacahua (cacao) and atl (water). There is, however, a theory that the origin of the word “chocolate” is chikolatl. For this you can read the highly entertaining blog of Magnus Pharao Hansen.
BAN ON CHILIS
In 1755, suddenly, the British decided to stubbornly write cocoa instead of cacao. But before we look back on this year, let me describe the cacao world of 1755 back then. Maybe it was the effect of the recipe publication of Colmenero de Ledesma. But in the following one hundred years, drinking hot chocolate became very popular among high society across Europe. Chocolate houses popped up everywhere, just like coffee shops do now. The chilis, however, disappeared from the recipes. The Frenchman M. St. Disdier still mentioned them in a published recipe in 1692. He listed hot water, cacao, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and a tiny bit of powdered cloves and chilis as the ingredients. But in the mid-1700s, chilis were removed from future recipes.
So what happened in 1755 that change cacao into cocoa? The word cacao was widespread across the whole of Europe as the fitting word of an essential ingredient of the immensely popular hot chocolate drink. As I mentioned previously, the word cacao was also more or less copied from the Mayan and Olmec languages in Meso-America. Many languages in that area have more or less the same pronunciation for cacao: kakawa (Mazahua, proto-Zoquean, Nahuatl), or kakaw (proto-Mixean, Sayula, Tseltal, K’iche, classic Mayan). So, in their chocolate houses and coffee houses, the whole of Europe spoke of cacao, not cocoa.
Cacao was not on everybody’s lips though. The chocolate houses were mainly the domain of the elite. It was a decadent drink with the reputation of being an aphrodisiac. Were the chocolate houses an alibi for sexual promiscuity in those days? Who knows. But for sure it stimulated the good mood and the notorious gossips amongst the upper classes of Europe.
WHITE'S CHOCOLATE HOUSE
On a side note, it is great to know that the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party in London, started as a chocolate house. We are talking about White’s Chocolate House. Originally established in 1693 under the name: Mrs. White’s Chocolate House. First, it opened its doors in Chesterfield Street. In 1778 it moved to St. James Street.
SAMUEL JOHNSON'S TYPO
It all changed when Samuel Johnson published his dictionary of the English language in 1755. In his notes, he maintained the distinction between the words cacao and coco and between the cacao tree and the coco palm. But by some editorial or printing error, he combined the two words and printed it in the same dictionary as cocoa. And from that moment on, the British took the dictionary as the holy bible of the English language and based their pronunciation of the “food of gods” (as the Meso-Americans described the beans) on a mistake.
So, Is the word cocoa just a spelling mistake from 1755? Unfortunately, there is no other conclusion than that it is indeed just an ordinary error. Next time you hear somebody saying cocoa stead of cacao, gently point out that their whole cocoa life has been based on a typo.