Nachos, anyone?

Nachos, anyone?

In the 25 years during which I worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, before the days of sophisticated electronic searching, the methods used by OED library researchers like myself were varied, random, and frequently unscientific.

These were pre-computer days. The internet was 25 years in the future. Gradually computer use for library holdings was introduced, but the more sophisticated searches (journals and newspaper texts) were restricted to use by authorized staff. I relied heavily on the many printed subject indexes to books, journals, reports, and newspapers. The general book stacks of the Library of Congress were then open to qualified researchers which made checking of references relatively easy. Browsing in a single library number frequently yielded answers impossible to find by other techniques.

Originally my work was the verification of quotations supplied by contributors after publication of the first Supplement in 1933, the sources for which could not be located readily in England. The early quotations needing verification were primarily bibliographic puzzles to be solved, but the work soon developed into requests to ‘Please verify and supply antedating if possible.’ Requests covered all parts of speech. Nouns (sb., at that time) soon became my favourites. I had many happy searches; one of the most rewarding was for nachos.

I had only learned of nachos a few years earlier when a Mexican restaurant opened in our Capitol Hill neighbourhood. Those nachos were delicious!

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?

I received my mail from the OED at my home address so it was early evening when I pondered over this slip. I called several Texan friends in Washington that evening and each of them wanted to tell me all about nachos but none knew how the name had been derived. After three phone calls (and three different recipes for perfect nachos) I gave up on nachos that evening.

The next morning I began my search in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress and started with the handbooks of Mexican, Chicano, and Tex-Mex words and phrases, but found only ‘nacho, adv. = naturally, of course’. The head of the division, soon joined by her assistant, asked if I needed help. The library’s staff were always intrigued by my word searches and most gracious in assistance. I showed them the slip of paper I had received. Convinced the word was truly derived from Spanish, they showed me the scholarly Spanish language dictionaries and together we pored over the entries for nacho, hoping to find another clue, but we met with no success.

As I walked down the long corridor leading back to the library’s central core, I heard a voice softly calling my name. There was a young woman I recognized as a staff member of the Hispanic Division. She had overheard our discussion of nacho in the reading room but had been reluctant to interrupt us. She told me she had been born and raised in Mexico and there nacho has only one common usage: it is the word used as a diminutive for a little boy who had been baptized Ignacio. His family and friends call him Nacho. She thought I should know this. What a wonderful bit of information! We beamed at each other. I thanked her profusely, and later I told her she was the true reason for my success in solving the etymology of nacho(s).

Without this clue, it would have been a hopeless search, taking far more than the allotted time, since there were usually 15-25 queries per week. Now I was convinced there was a real Nacho somewhere who had dreamed up a combination of tortilla pieces with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Instead of browsing the cookbook section of Library of Congress’s collection which has an elaborate classification for the miles of its cookery collection, I tried a short-cut: calling the food editor of the Washington Post. My imagination had already created a marvellous feature on nachos; perhaps President and Mrs Lyndon Johnson (1963-8) had served them at a cocktail party in the White House! But, alas, the food editor could not help in the nacho cause; she suggested that I call the food editor of the San Antonio Express.

As the largest city influenced by Tex-Mex trends, San Antonio might possibly yield a clue to nacho

As the largest city influenced by Tex-Mex trends, San Antonio might possibly yield a clue to nacho. This phone call produced pure gold! This food editor knew all about nachos; she had written a column for that newspaper in 1986 (11 Mar. 2D) and credited Ignacio Anaya, chef at the old Victory Club in Piedras Negras (a small Mexican town just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas) as the person who assembled the first nachos for some Eagle Pass ladies who were on a shopping trip during the 1940s. The library had this newspaper on microfilm, so I read the entire article.

This feature story revealed that a cookbook published in 1954 by the Church of the Redeemer in Eagle Pass had used the word in an advertisement for the Victory Club. This cookbook was not listed in the National Union Catalogue, so I wrote to the public library in Eagle Pass. (While waiting for a response, I tackled other OED queries which had been put aside!)

Within a week I had a response—they did not have the 1954 cookbook, but they did have a later cookbook (1970) published by the same church, and enclosed in that letter was a copy of page 89 from the 1970 publication that not only supplied the recipe but also gave the complete story of those first nachos.

I still had not found a pre-1969 quote. It was ‘browsing time’ in the library’s cookery collection and I limited this search to the class number assigned to Texan cuisine. Several 1965+ quotations surfaced, and eventually I found A Taste of Texas, edited by Jane Trahey in 1949 with a perfect nachos quote on page 27:

Pedro left. Sometime later he returned carrying a large dish of Nachos Especiales. ‘These Nachos,’ said Pedro, ‘will help El Capitan—he will soon forget his troubles for nachos make one romantic.’

A wonderful sentence. My search ended. I knew the estimated two hours permitted for a word search had far exceeded its limits, but a 20-30 year antedating and its true etymology had been worth it. And to add to the satisfaction, we have recently, with the help of the Rector and one of the parishioners of the Church of the Redeemer, Eagle Pass, Texas, been able to verify a quotation from that elusive 1954 St Anne’s Cookbook which confirms the existence of Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Anaya, gives the Victory Club as the place in which he invented his ‘nacho specials’, and provides his own original recipe.

The 1995 News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) 8 Nov. 2E (my daily newspaper now) reprinted a feature story from the Dallas Morning News, datelined Piedras Negras, Mexico. 21 October had recently been declared International Day of the Nacho, and a bronze plaque had been installed in honor of Ignacio Anaya (who died in 1975). The author had interviewed Ignacio Anaya, Jr., a retired banker from Eagle Pass, Texas, who gave 1943 as the date his father first served his nachos especiales to those ladies on a shopping trip. Others interviewed offered varied opinions on the subject of nachos and sources of the original recipe, but whatever the opinions, the word nacho is here in the English language to stay. Someday a 4-5 year antedating for nachos may yet surface when every published word is available electronically. But the fun part of the search will be gone.

This article first appeared in an issue of the OED newsletter in 1999. Since then an earlier dating of 1947 has been identified: ‘“Nachos” (Mexican Hors-D’-Oeuvres) … 35c Here is a real dainty! Golden fried tortilla strips, deliciously spiced, topped with mellow, melted cheese and garnished with chili jalapeno bits.’

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. in contrast to the modern nacho (1947), the first reference in the OED to tortilla dates from 1699, while 1849 brought twiglet and 1929 potato crisp.
  2. the origin and influence of the nacho, and many similar foods, is the subject of Tex-Mex by Matt Kohl, one of our Aspects of English commentaries.
  3. the OED Online includes more than 850 entries, relating to food and cookery, derived from the United States—from dough-boy (1685) to Big Mac (1970).

How do I search for these? With subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for entries by date, usage, origin, region, and subject using the Advanced Search option. To group entries by subject and place, use Advanced Search/Browse subject (and follow the link under ‘Consumables’) combined with Advanced Search/Browse region (and follow the link under ‘North America’).

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