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chocolate

Ten facts about the word ‘chocolate’

On 13 September we celebrate the birthday of arguably one of the most famous producers of chocolate in history. Milton Hershey, who was born 155 years ago today, opened the doors of his US chocolate factory in 1900, and his chocolate bars and kisses came onto the market shortly thereafter.

But where did chocolate, as we know it today, come from?

To celebrate the life and legacy of the great chocolatier, we look at ten facts relating to the word ‘chocolate’, and how our favourite treat has contributed to the English language.

1. The English word ‘chocolate’ comes ultimately from the Nahuatl word chocolatl, an edible substance made from, amongst other ingredients, the seeds of the cacao tree. When the first Spanish explorers encountered chocolatl in Central  America, they apparently mixed it up with the word cacahuatl, the name of a drink made from cacao.

2. Because Spanish explorers used the term ‘chocolate’ to incorrectly denote the drink made from cacao, the current earliest sense of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to ‘a beverage made from the seeds of the cacao tree’. It is first cited by Edward Grimstone in Acosta’s Historie of the West Indies, 1604, in which he states ‘The chiefe vse of this cacao is in a drinke which they call Chocolate.’

3. When speaking in French about a particularly toned man, one might refer to his tablettes de chocolat, literally, his chocolate bars, to refer to his six-pack. (Read our blog post featuring more unusual phrases from other languages)

4. Chocolate has become so ubiquitous in the western world that a word has developed to describe those who can’t get enough of it. ‘Chocoholic’, was first used in 1961 when one journalist of Californian newspaper the Pasadena Independent asked, ‘Would you call a person who is over fond of chocolates a chocoholic?’ Whether or not the comment was meant to be taken as a joke, the term caught on and is in general use to this day.

5. The OED also records chocolate as a verb, although it is rarely used, and has only one illustrative quotation in the OED. It means ‘to drink chocolate’ and the quotation is from an 1850 work called Eldorado which reads ‘We arose in the moonlight, chocolated in the comedor, or dining-hall.’

6. References to chocolate are also found in British Rhyming Slang. ‘I should cocoa’ to mean ‘I should say so’, was first coined in 1936. According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the phrase ‘chocolate frog’ was rhyming slang for ‘dog’, meaning an informer.

7. ‘Chocolate-houses’ came into fashion in the late 17th century as a place for people to buy chocolate as a beverage. Although the name for such a place is no longer in common usage, it gives an indication of the social and cultural importance of chocolate in the 1800s (compare, for example, with the tea- and coffee- houses that exist today).

8. There are a number of chocolate-related word compounds that have come into use. ‘Chocolate-boxy’ was first used as an adjective to describe the stereotypical romantic pictures found on chocolate boxes of the Victorian era, and has been shortened to ‘chocolate-box’, which means ‘to describe something in a conventional or idealised way’. On the flipside, a ‘chocolate soldier’ or ‘chocolate cream solider’ is one who will not fight. The phrase was used by George Bernard Shaw in Arms and the Man, a humorous play about the futility of war, and continued to be used for some time to contrast the sweetness of chocolate against the backdrop of war.

9. The Oxford English Corpus tells us that the top four words used with ‘chocolate’ are ‘cake’, ‘bar’, ‘chip’, and ‘cookie’, while the most frequent modifying adjectives are ‘hot’, ‘dark’, ‘white’, ‘milk’, rich’, and ‘delicious’.

10. Production of Hershey’s chocolate bars started the same year he opened his new factory, and in 1937, he and his product were referenced in George Gershwin’s They All Laughed. The song looks at great discoveries and inventions that seemed silly at the time of their fruition.

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