Tamale: An English Back-Formation

If you live on the West Coast or have access to Latin American cuisine, it’s more than likely that you love to feast on tamales during this time of year. It’s a comfort food representing the holiday season for many of us who have Latin American roots or who live in an area with heavy Latin American influence.

While it’s likely you’d request more than one of these when they’re available, do you know how to properly ask for only one in Spanish?

The correct answer: un tamal

That’s right. Even though you might have heard tamale all these years in the United States, the term tamale is incorrect in proper Spanish.

While there are arguments that tamale is similar to the word’s original Nahuatl term tamalli, the English version tamale is just that—an anglicized version adopted by English speakers in the United States assuming that the singular of tamales is tamale. The anglicized term dates back to the 1800’s, when a San Francisco article introduced the term in a piece about the food.

Tamale is what you would call a back-formation of the term tamales. A back-formation happens when one removes parts of the word (affixes) to make a new word. In the case of tamales, English speakers dropped the -s to form an anglicized singular version. Read about back-formation.

Read about the term tamale in an excerpt from book Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries: English Words that Come from Spanish.