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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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A Word A Day — tamale

Good morning, Netizens...

December 07, 2012

Word of the Day

  • tamale
  • audio pronunciation
  • \tuh-MAH-lee\


: cornmeal dough rolled with ground meat or beans seasoned usually with chili, wrapped usually in corn husks, and steamed

"The Mexican Dinner has a little of everything; the moist tamale and cheese enchilada, both with chili, are especially good." — From a restaurant review in Texas Monthly, November 2012

"You think I'm full of shame and regret for what I've done now, Sister? You could shave me bald as a cue ball and I'll still be the hottest tamale in this joint." — Chloë Sevigny in the television series American Horror Story, October 2012


"Hot tamale" is sometimes used figuratively, as in our second example, to suggest sexual attractiveness, but it's the word's literal use that puts it in an interesting category. How many English food words can you name that derive from Nahuatl, a group of languages spoken by native peoples of Mexico and Central America? You've probably guessed that "tamale" gives you one; it came to us (by way of Mexican Spanish) from the Nahuatl "tamalli," a word for steamed cornmeal dough. Add to the menu "chili" (from "chīlli," identifying all those fiery peppers); "chocolate" (from "chocolātl," first used for a beverage made from chocolate and water); "guacamole" (from "āhuacatl," meaning "avocado," plus "mōlli," meaning "sauce"); and "tomato" (from "tomatl"). Top it all off with "chipotle" (a smoked and dried pepper), from "chīlli" and "pōctli" (meaning "something smoked").

Spokesman-Review readers blog about news and issues in Spokane written by Dave Laird.