A bonanza of tequila?

Two Mexican Spanish words that ambled through English into Norsk vocabulary

Bonanza sign

Photo: jcookfisher / Flickr
A “Bonanza” sign in Virginia City, Nevada, captures the word’s exuberance.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In the 1840s, two Mexican Spanish words, bonanza and tequila, found their way into English, and thereby, 50 to 100 years later, into European languages, including Norwegian.

Bonanza is a Mexican Spanish word meaning “fair weather” and implying “prosperity.” It first appeared in English in 1842, in Ambrosio de Letinez, a novel about Texas by A.T. Myrthe, the pseudonym of Anthony Ganilh, a Catholic missionary born in France. Thereafter, as in the novel, the word was used to describe rich finds of silver and gold lodes that led to the mining fortunes made in western North America in the 19th century. In the lore of the American West, bonanza became a synonym for “striking it rich.” Many mining towns were named Bonanza. In 1883, the word was used to describe rapid recovery in the stock market following the depression in North America and Europe from 1873 to 1879.

The aura of return on investment grew apace. In the U.S., Bonanza Airlines (1945-1968) flew DC-3 airliners on routes serving the western states and to and from Mexico. And in the U.S., a TV western series entitled Bonanza was broadcast in 431 episodes from 1959 to 1973. Today in Norway, bonanza means “unexpectedly profitable stock market,” quite in keeping with its first mention in English in a story about Texas, which itself is Norwegian slang for “wild conditions.”

Bonanza of tequila

Photo: flickr
Holy tequila shots!

Tequila has a linguistic history similar to that of Cognac. Just as Cognac is named for the French town of its origin and is a type of brandy, which is a spirit made from distilling fermented juices of grapes (wine), Tequila is named for the Mexican town of its origin and is a type of mezcal, which is a spirit made from distilling fermented juices of agave plants (Ørkenblomst in Norwegian).

It first appeared in English in 1849, in a diary kept by naturalist Josiah Gregg (1806-1850) and published in 1944 by the Historical Society of Southern California. Thereafter, it became the spirit of choice of the literary elite, who adopted the Mexican tradition of drinking it with salt and lemon. It also became chic for women; the May 1977 issue of Playgirl Magazine advised that, “For the woman whose liquor larder extends beyond beer and beer and wine, tequila is now a necessity.” Today in Norway, tequila is a favored spirit; the online catalog of the Vinmonopolet, the government-owned and operated wine and spirits monopoly, lists 80 varieties of it.

The assimilation of the word tequila into English (and thereby Norwegian) is straightforward. But popular myth holds that it has a wild side as it’s believed to be made from mescaline, a hallucinogenic substance found in the peyote cactus and other types of cactus native to Mexico, and hence related to LSD, the synthetic equivalent of mescaline.

Though prevalent, that myth has no basis in fact. It came about through linguistic confusion. Tequila is not made from mescaline, a hallucinogenic, but from mescal, which is benign. Though some people may suffer hallucinations after consuming quantities of tequila, alcohol is the only intoxicant it contains. The message here is perhaps that untrue word derivations can indeed deceive.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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