Tex-Mex terms in English

By Matt Kohl, OED

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Tex-Mex as ‘a Texan style of cooking using Mexican ingredients and characterized by the adaptation of Mexican dishes, frequently with more moderate use of hot flavourings such as chilli; food cooked in this style.’ It is no secret, however, that plenty of the most common items on the Tex-Mex table are unambiguously Mexican, and dishes bearing American Spanish names crop up in English print sources well before the term Tex-Mex appears to have been coined. The OED‘s earliest evidence for the culinary sense of this term dates back to a 1963 New York Times Magazine article, although recent research suggests that this first date might be pushed back into the late-nineteenth century.

On the Tex-Mex table

The term Tex-Mex may only be a little over a century old, but many of the dishes now considered staples of Tex-Mex cookery began to enter the language up to fifty years earlier, just a short while after the United States annexed Texas in 1845. For example, the OED‘s first evidence of tamal, a dish made of cooked masa and a meat filling, occurs in Frederick L. Olmsted’s 1856 A Journey through Texas. English evidence for quesadilla, a cheese and tortilla dish available as an appetizer in most every Tex-Mex eatery, dates back to 1857. Enchilada, deriving from the Spanish verb enchilar, ‘to add chili to’, first appears in 1887, and has since become so popular as to evolve a number of slang usages, the most familiar of which concentrate on size, such as big enchilada, which the OED defines as ‘a person with (the greatest) power, influence, or importance in a specified context; the person in command, the boss’, and whole enchilada, ‘a thing in its entirety; the whole situation; everything, “the works”’.

An American Spanish lexical pedigree, however, does not always guarantee Mexican origins. Take chili con carne, for example. Although its name is Spanish for ‘chilli with meat’, Francisco J. Santamaría, in his Diccionario de Mejicanismos, disavowed chili con carne as a ‘detestable comida que con el falso titlo de mejicana’, (detestable food falsely labeled Mexican). Or perhaps consider the fajita, pronounced fə’hidə. Deriving from the American Spanish word for ‘small strip’, fajita originally referred to a grilled strip of marinated (usually skirt or flank) steak. Sliced and wrapped in a tortilla, fare of this kind can be found across Mexico by other names (for example, arrachera al carbon); the English-speaking world knows it as the fajita. The OED‘s first print evidence dates from 1971 in Sam Huddleston’s self-published Tex-Mex Cookbook. Since then the dish’s rise in popularity has also seen a semantic broadening of the term, and fajita now denotes any dish served in that manner, as evidenced by the gloss in the following 1994 quotation: ‘the fajitas (char-grilled chicken, beef or prawn served with tortillas)’.

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Was there a Nacho or a Margarita?

Although the above items have quite literal, descriptive names, such is not always the case with Tex-Mex terms. Popular legend has it that the nacho, for example, took its name from one Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Anaya*. As retold in the 1970 church cookbook For Goodness Sake!, the story goes: ‘This simple yet delicious snack originated some years ago in Old Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico when a group of Eagle Pass women asked the chef, Nacho, to make something for them to eat with their cocktails.’ As Robb Walsh suggests, Nacho (so-called after the pet-form of Ignacio) was probably not the first person to prepare tortillas, cheese, and jalapeños in such a manner, but because his name stuck, English speakers have been using it ever since. Another likely candidate for such namesaking is the margarita, a tequila cocktail beloved in Tex-Mex cuisine. According to the OED etymology, the cocktail’s name is variously attributed, with suggested origins in Mexico, California, or elsewhere in North America, and is commonly assigned to the 1930s or 1940s. Nobody knows for sure who invented it or whom it is called after.

A quick glance at the aforementioned terms will (rightly) suggest that much of Tex-Mex vocabulary derives from Spanish and borrows into English as-is, untranslated. Occasional exceptions occur, however, and one of the most prominent is refried beans.  From the American Spanish ‘frijoles refritos’, this item took its English form in combining the English prefix ‘re-’ with ‘fried’, a translation of ‘fritos’, resulting in an adjective that seems to connote two trips to the frying pan. Literally speaking, though, the ‘re-’ prefix in ‘refritos’ serves as an intensifier, translating into ‘well-fried’, rather than fried twice, a linguistic curiosity that, happily, though coincidentally, accords with most traditional preparations of the dish.

*You can read more about the OED‘s search for the etymology of nacho in an article from 1999, written by the dictionary’s then U.S. library researcher, Adriana P. Orr.

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