Five (Largely Inaccurate) Oxford English Dictionary Entries for Mexican Foods

Last week, I reported on how the Oxford English
had just included “banh mi” into its august publication, a
wonderful, surprising development. Also in the mix was “taquito,” and
that entry just pissed me off.

Oh, I was happy that rolled, fried tacos finally received their due–but
what took the OED so long to include them? Nothing against the bánh mì,
but taquitos have part of American English (and the world, for that
matter) far longer than the Vietnamese sandwich, and the Mexican snack
is still far more popular–just check your local supermarkets for frozen
taquitos versus bánh mì. Curious, I looked up the official definition
for “taquito” in the OED (available only to subscribers or
quasi-academics like myself), and found a bit of the answer to the
problem–they couldn't even accurately point out the first time it came
out in the English language. And not just for “taquitos,” mind you–they
also lag on most of the most popular Mexican foods in the United States.

For the millionth time (and I won't stop saying this until the
trillionth), I'm working on a book about the history of Mexican food in
the United States, so I'm chockablock on data regarding when particular
foodstuffs entered the United States and subsequently garnered mention
in American letters. After the jump, then, is a list of Mexican foods in
the OED, the earliest reference they could find for it, and the
earliest I could find. The discrepancy, as they say, may surprise
you, and I do this as a service to the OED in its endless, always fruitful efforts to track the English language

Now, the list–and gracias to Weekly intern Jason Davis for the research assistance!

1. Taquito

Where the OED got it wrong: They claim the word is from American Spanish (as opposed to Mexican Spanish) and its first use in English was 1929.

The truth: I have found references to “taquitos” in Mexican cookbooks dating back to the 1890s; the earliest reference I've found for the word in English comes from a 1924 Los Angeles Times article that describes them as “chopped meat and pepper wrapped in a tortilla and fried.”

2. Taco

Where the OED got it wrong: They say the earliest English reference is 1949

The truth: This one is surprising, as its own entry on “taquito” dating that word to 1929 also inadvertently dates “taco” to that year. But even that's wrong: the earliest English reference to “taco” I could find is a 1914 cookbook.

3. Enchilada

Where the OED got it wrong: Claims the etymology is American Spanish, and dates it to 1887.

The truth: It's Mexican Spanish, old chaps–and enchiladas were one of the first Mexican foods American chroniclers raved about upon visiting the American Southwest: the Times was raving about them as early as 1886. But the earliest mention I've found so far was in Mexico: Landscapes and Popular Sketches, a travel guide published in 1859, which described the dish as “maize-bread with Spanish-pepper, meat and cheese.”

4. Tamale

Where the OED got it wrong: Saying it's made of “crushed Indian corn”? Calling it a “Mexican delicacy” even though tamales exist from the United States to Tierra de Fuego? Oy vey…they also date it to 1856.

The truth: They actually got one crucial point right: as many Chicano yaktivists will remind you, the proper word is “tamal,” not tamale. But numerous descriptions of tamales by American chroniclers exist before 1856–the earliest I could find was in 1844's Narrative of the Texan-Santa Fé Expedition, and I'm sure the diaries of the earliest Texians can push that date even further back.

5. Burrito

Where the OED got it wrong: They say it's American Spanish, and that it dates back to 1934.

The truth: Burritos might be more popular in the United States than the whole of Mexico, and I couldn't find an earlier English reference to burritos as a foodstuff than their entry–but I have found references to “burritos” in Mexican dictionaries dating to the 1890s. I'll leave it to someone else to find an English reference before 1934…

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