Monday, 11 May 2009

Not everything from Mexico is bad

If you are feeling well enough to read this, you are presumably not yet suffering from the H1N1 strain of influenza – although if reports are to be believed, many of us soon will be. Most reports about this virus use the name of ‘swine flu’, although some refer to it as ‘Mexican swine flu’, and the Israeli government even debated removing ‘swine’ altogether (on account of cultural sensibilities over pork) and calling it ‘Mexican flu’.

Needless to say, Mexico cried foul at this suggestion. Who wants their country's name to be enshrined in language as the purveyor of a pandemic? (However, one only to needs to think of Dutch elm disease and German measles to realize that other countries have suffered similar indignities.)

Before the arrival of swine flu, Mexico could claim a reasonable track record for projecting a favourable image through language. The Mexican wave (a rippling effect created by different sections of spectators at a sporting event standing up in turn) is associated with celebration, while Mexican orange blossom conjures up sensations of warmth and fragrance. Even the American phrase Mexican standoff (referring to an impasse or stalemate) is by definition a neutral term.

Words that Mexico has contributed to English through the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs generally refer to exotic animals (axolotl, ocelot, quetzal) or nice things to eat (avocado, chilli, chocolate), and words that have come into English more recently from the Mexican variety of Spanish also reflect the enthusiasm of the English-speaking world for spicy Mexican cuisine (enchilada, fajitas, jalapeño, taco).

No less than three districts of Mexico have given their names to well-known objects: the state of Tabasco to a hot pepper sauce, Tequila to an alcoholic drink associated with riotous partying, and Chihuahua to a small breed of dog with big eyes and pointing-up ears.

Finally, two notable Mexican people have given their names to English words: the revolutionary leader Zapata to a kind of droopy moustache, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma II to Montezuma’s revenge (also known as the Aztec two-step), which is a stomach disorder that you might get from eating too much of the above-mentioned spicy food.

This last term was probably as bad as it got as far as Mexico’s linguistic associations were concerned – until now.

Ian Brookes

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