Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
In 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men were tromping through Central America, and they came upon a plant they had never seen before. It was a vining orchid, and its white flower bloomed for only a day. It also bore roughly six-inch-long pods inside of which were a mess of tiny seeds in an oily substance. Most importantly, though, is that the substance inside the pod smelled amazing.
They took the plant back to Europe, where chefs and perfumers found myriad ways to incorporate it into their wares.
In Spanish, the word for pod (or sheath) is vaina. Because the plant’s pods were small, they added the diminutive suffix –illa to it and called the plant vainilla. English dropped that first i to give us vanilla, literally “little sheath.”
If we take the etymology back further, it gets a little weird — so of course we’ll go there. Spanish vaina derives from the Latin word vagina, meaning “covering,” specifically a sheath or scabbard for a sword or the husk surrounding a grain. Medical professionals didn’t start using that word in the anatomical sense until the mid-17th century — more than 100 years after vanilla began proliferating across Europe.
Some people like to claim that vanilla actually means “little vagina,” which is true only if you view the second word as being Latin. Still the flavoring and the body part are closely related etymologically.
And since we’ve already dipped our toe in the waters of anatomical vocabulary, so why not wade out a bit farther?
I noted before that the vanilla plant is a type of orchid. The word orchid derives from the Greek orkhis — literally “testicle” — and was so called because the shape of its roots resembled … well, I think you can figure that out.
Calling an orchid vanilla is etymologically fitting, though, considering that vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic — containing both the male (anther) and female (stigma) reproductive organs.
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