Nachos: Etymology of a Food Word


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides many food writers with the tools to plot out the history of certain foods.

But just how do those intrepid word researchers find their information? What’s their go-to source?

oxford-english-dictionaryAdriana P. Orr served as a researcher for OED for 25 years. At one point later in her career, she received the assignment of determining the etymology of the word “nacho” as applied to tortilla chips covered with cheese or other topping, then coming into vogue in the food world.

In September 1988 a slip of paper (the usual 4 x 6) for this word came from one of the editors, stating that the earliest quotation in the OED files was from a 1978 issue of the Tucson (Arizona) Magazine, but that the recently published Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary showed 1969 as the earliest date in their files. Could I antedate? Added was a postscript asking if I could find its etymology. WNCD had suggested it might be ‘fr. Sp. “nacho” flat-nosed’. Could I confirm this? I had only learned of nachos a few years earlier when a Mexican restaurant opened in our Capitol Hill neighbourhood. Those nachos were delicious! I could have made them my entire meal, but how could anyone who has looked at and eaten nachos see any relationship between one of these and the adjective ‘flat-nosed’?

To find out how Adriana accomplished her mission, click HERE.

While you’re contemplating the origins of nachos, help yourself to some by making  the following recipe:

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Makes a lot!

2 dozen corn tortiallas, cut into 6 wedges and fried until crisp in vegetable oil (drain on paper towels), or 1 large package  tortilla chips of your choice
3-4 cups chili con carne with beans, homemade or canned, cooked until boiling, remove from heat
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
Pickled jalapeño slices
Oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved
Chopped plum tomatoes
Green-leaf lettuce, cut into thin shreds
Green onions, sliced
Sour cream
Salsa, homemade or your favorite commercial brand

Spread the chips out on a large platter, pour the hot chili over the chips, and top with grated cheese. Add the remaining condiments in whatever amount you like.

And enjoy!

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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