by León Alejandro Ortiz Rojas

Last month, there was a big hullabaloo about the Mayan supposed prediction of the end of the world as we know it. As for the Maya, we know a fair amount about them –  they invented the number zero, and calculated the time of eclipses centuries in advance, to name only a couple of the ways they’ve impacted even modern-day life – but it seems that on this occasion they were misinterpreted. However, there are some other, positive ways in which the Maya have left their footprint in the modern world.

Some words from pre-Columbian times came into English. Words like tomato, chocolate, hurricane or coyote, among others, were adopted into Spanish by the conquistadors and later moved into English because of commercial or cultural exchange. But, unlikely as it may seem, there is at least one word that seems to have literally jumped “the pond”.

As the story goes, in the 1560s Captain John Hawkins was sent to the Caribbean to harass Spanish ships. While sailing in the Caribbean, the sailors caught a shark which was brought back to England. When they were exhibiting the animal they said it was called a “sharke”. In Mayan, the word “xoc” can be used to refer to sharks. We can already imagine Englishmen pronouncing the name with British accent. In this way the words shark and xoc would be almost the same.

So, apparently the English word shark comes from the Maya word xoc. This is just a theory and it could be imprecise, but at least we do know from history that all of the background to this story is true. Captain Hawkins and his sailors were in the Caribbean, they docked in Yucatan, they brought a shark to England, which they exhibited, and they did use the word “sharke”, which was new to English at that time. The circumstantial evidence seems strong.

Just as learning the culture helps to learn the language, learning the story behind a word helps to understand it better and to burn it into our memory. There are many other words with an interesting origin. We will leave it up to your inner Indiana Jones to figure it out. The discovery process will leave a more lasting impression in your mind about the word. Check out these words: assassin, barbarian, berserk, boycott, canary, gadget, malaria, renegade, sandwich, scapegoat, salary, sniper, threshold, thug, toxic and sniper.

The Maya may not have predicted the end of the world, but now you know a little more about Mayan.


About Alejandro:

León Alejandro Ortiz Rojas is Livemocha’s Spanish translator behind the scenes of all of our Spanish-language blog posts. Check ’em out!