Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How the Coconut Got Its Name

The thing one learns while researching articles for Flavors of Brazil! I'll bet you didn't know that the coconut (Cocos nucifera) was named after the Bogeyman. You know, the scary monster that lurks in children's closets, or hides out under the basement stairs. I certainly didn't. It's hard to guess the connection, but any etymological dictionary of English will explain the origin of the word coco is Portuguese, which English then picked up from that language and changed slightly to coconut.

It turns out that in the folklore and mythology of the Iberian peninsula, there is a ghostly figure which is very similar to the Bogeyman and which is called coco or cuco. In his scariest incarnation, he is known as a child-eater and/or kidnapper, and parents for centuries have used the threat of his appearance to scare children into obedience. He is often represented as a ghost with the head of a pumpkin, similar in appearance to the familiar Jack o'Lantern. The Goya engraving at right is entitled "Que Viene el Coco". Over time, coco or cuco came to mean head or skull in colloquial Spanish and Portuguese.

The coconut wasn't known in medieval Europe as it originates in Asia and Oceania. In the early stages of the Age of Exploration, Portuguese sailors encountered this fruit on their journeys in search of spices and gold. They were struck by the appearance of the fruit, particularly by the three holes at one end of it, and by how the holes gave it the appearance of a head or skull - a coco, as it were. They began to call the fruit coco and that name became established first in the Portuguese language and then in some variation of that word in most Western European languages, including English.

Thus, the Iberian Bogeyman, the coco, ended up achieving world wide fame not so much for his frightful qualities, but for the fact that his head resembles nothing so much as a coconut.

(Here is a link to the article on coconut oil in the New York Times that is discussed in the comments below - coconut oil )


  1. Jim

    Most interesting. If you get a chance, check the New York Times article today on coconut oil. Just like the taboo on butter, they seem to be backing off the badness of coco oil for popcorn as a few years back. Now it might be good for you.

    You always put out great and informative information. Keep it up.

    Kind Regards,

    Jim in Winter Wonderland in Minnesota

  2. Thanks, Jim, for the tip on the NYT article. It´s very interesting, and shows that the science of nutrition is far from a settled science.

    If other readers want to read the NYT article, I´ve appended a link to it in the post itself.


  3. Jim, I appreciate the heads-up on the New York Times piece. It demonstrates redactle how far nutrition research still has to go before it can be considered a solid science, and it's fascinating to read.