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The Maize Page

My friend Chris and I were talking today about maize, and wondering why "we" usually say "corn," while virtually all the American Indian tribes (in dramatizations) use the term "maize," and is there really a difference?

Plus, do you know if their distinct tribal languages really shared a term like "maize," or was this a European, imported term, that only SEEMS to have been shared in modern representations of Indian life?

We plead ignorant! Can you shed some (perhaps buttered, lightly salted) light on our shadowy curiosity?

Greetings Mary and Chris,

The "English" word "corn" has an unusual etymology. It can be traced directly to an Indoeuropean word that was something like "grn" (we can't know exactly because we only know about it from runes, early Indoeuropean "writing" that recorded only consonants). The literal meaning of this word was "small nugget." What is particularly interesting is that from its Indoeuropean roots this word evolved in different directions through the Germanic and Latin branches of the family. However, both of these branches of linguistic evolution reach into modern English, and therefore we now have "grn" in English in various transmutations:

From Germanic:
Corn: Korn, meaning a cereal grain (a cereal is any edible grass seed) Kernel: the diminutive form of Korn, meaning a small grain Grit: an almost direct survivor of the original "grn," meaning very small, tough grains

From Latin:
Grain: as above, an edible grass seed, from "granum"

A curious result of this is that you can make a statement in English that conveys a clear meaning to English speakers, but which etymologically is utterly redundant:

"Grits are ground from kernels of corn grain."

All the nouns and even the verb in this sentence are derived from the same root!

Knowing this, you can figure out the answer to your question. Both the Latinate "grain" and the Germanic "corn" are generic terms used to refer to any edible grass seed (e.g., millet, sorghum, barley, rye, oats, wheat, maize). Therefore, English speakers apply the word corn to whatever the predominant grain happens to be in their region and/or diet. When you refer to corn in England itself, all listeners interpret you to be referring to wheat, for example. It is in this sense that the word is used throughout the King James version of the Bible. Naturally, when English and German speakers came to the new world, they referred to the local grain (Zea mays L.) as "corn," but differentiated it from their own "corn" by terming it "Indian corn."

As to "maize," that is a completely different story. When Columbus' expedition made landfall in 1492 they reached some island (the specific one still debatable) in the northern Antilles, near today's San Salvador. The island was populated by Tahino people, in whose language the name for their staple crop was "mahis." The name meant "source of life." Therefore, the Spanish, who took samples of this giant grain with them, propagated the Taino name for the plant wherever they distributed the crop, which was literally all over the known world (that is a separate story). That word has been transmutated phonetically into today's "maize" in English, and "maíz" in Spanish.

Therefore, you can also now tell, the posturing that you see in dramatizations and popular advertisements where U. S. native americans are made to talk about "maize" is ludicrous. In each of the native languages of the New World, folks had their own word for the crop. One common theme that does run through many such names, however, is the idea of maize being the source, or sustainer of all life. In the three main languages of Mesoamerica, where maize was originally domesticated, maize was known as:

Nahuatl (Aztec): Centli
Maya: Cor (the apparent resemblence to the germanic is utterly coincidental)
Zapotec: Rxoa

Mesoamericans made a number of foodstuffs, notably a pliable flat-bread, from maize. If you're interested in further information on this particular topic, see the Frequently Asked Question: How do you make a tortilla from scratch?

One last note. When Linnaeus (the Swedish botanist who developed today's binomial plant classification system) devised a name for maize, he used a combination of the Taino name, and its translation into Greek in order to come up with the genus and species of the plant: Zea mays.

All best.

Ricardo J. Salvador

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