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? Was it really an ordinary typo? How popular was chocolate really in 1755? 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. The beans had previously been introduced to the Spanish court when 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 roasted and ground the beans and then mixed this with chilis, some other spices, and hot water to create the first hot chocolate drinks in Europe. But the Spanish, known for their collective sweet tooth, added one new ingredient: sugar. This was also included 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 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, a combination of cacahua (cacao) and atl (water). There is, however, a theory that the origin of the word “chocolate” is chikolatl (read the highly entertaining blog of Magnus Pharao Hansen).
The Ban on Chilis
Before we look back at 1755, when the British suddenly decided to stubbornly write cocoa instead of cacao, let me describe the world of 1755 and the world of cacao back then. Maybe the publication of Colmenero de Ledesma was first responsible for this, but in the following one hundred years, drinking hot chocolate became very popular among high society across Europe. Chocolate houses were popping up everywhere, just like coffee shops do now. The chilis, however, disappeared from the recipes. They were still mentioned in a published recipe in 1692 by the Frenchman M. St. Disdier, who 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 to change cacao to 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 pronounced it as cacao, not as cocoa.
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, the two words were combined and printed 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 next time you hear somebody saying cocoa stead of cacao, gently point out that their whole cocoa life has been based on a typo.