Linguistic diversity among the nopalries

I’ve been reading through Amy Butler Greenfield’s fascinating A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (HarperCollins 2005, paperback in 2006), which abounds in great topics: conquest, colonialism, skullduggery, official secrecy, piracy, medieval-style commercial guilds, mysteries of natural history, the growth of science, international trade, cultural diffusion, and more. Officially it’s about dyes, in particular the intense and durable true red dye sought by cultures around much of the world. So of course it turns out to be about cactuses and scale insects. Plenty of linguistic interest in there.

Background for reference. First from Wikipedia:

The cochineal ([pronounced /ˈkVtʃɨˌniːl/, where V is /a/ or /o/] … Dactylopius coccus) is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the crimson-coloured natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico, this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia [Spanish nopal ‘prickly pear’, literally ‘paddle’], feeding on plant moisture and nutrients.

That leads to the fine English word nopalry ‘plantation of nopal’.

And then from NOAD2, where we see that the noun can refer to the insect, the dried bodies of the insect, or the dye derived from those bodies:

1 a scarlet dye used chiefly for coloring food

  • the dried bodies of a female scale insect, which are crushed to yield this dye
  • a similar dye or preparation made from the oak kermes insect

2 (cochineal insect) the scale insect that is used for cochineal, native to Mexico and formerly widely cultivated on cacti.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from French cochenille or Spanish cochinilla, from Latin coccinus ‘scarlet,’ from Greek kokkos ‘berry’ (because the insect bodies were originally mistaken for grains or berries).

(Note on the etymology: Spain kept the nature of cochineal a closely guarded secret for a very long time. Outsiders were unsure whether it came from a plant or an animal — a worm of some kind — or possibly a plant-animal hybrid, and speculation abounded.)

Photos: a prickly pear, or Barbary fig (Opuntia ficus-indica), in a botanical illustration from The Cactaceae (1919-1923) by Britton & Rose:


As a bonus, Opuntia microdasys the ‘bunny ears cactus’:


The scale insects can feast on a number of different species of Opuntia.

A Mexican cochineal insect, magnified;


(Scale insects are not very photogenic.)

And some dyed yarn:


Two personal digressions.

Digression 1: my childhood chemistry set. On an antiques site, a 1936 Gilbert Chemistry Outfit, with

32 wooden chemical barrels, among them: cochineal, copper sulphate, gum arabic, ferric ammonium sulphate, logwood, magnesium sulphate, magnesium dioxide, borax, boric acid, ammonium chloride, ammonium sulphate, manganese sulphate, potassium permanganate, powdered iron sulphide, charcoal, sulfur, powdered iron, chrome alum [spelling somewhat regularized]

I don’t think I appreciated the story of cochineal at the time.

Digression 2: the merchant guilds. The actors in the story include the governors of New Spain, the peasants there, pirates (who sometimes seized huge amounts of cochineal), the administration back in Spain, and the merchant guilds who dealt with the product. On guilds, from Wikipedia:

A guild … is an association of artisans or merchants who control the practice of their craft in a particular town. The earliest types of guild were formed as confraternities of workers. They were organized in a manner something between a professional association, trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. They often depended on grants of letters patent by a monarch or other authority to enforce the flow of trade to their self-employed members, and to retain ownership of tools and the supply of materials.

That’s all quite serious, but my view of guilds has been irrevocably colored by the ones in Terry Pratchett’s comic novels. On Pratchett, from Wikipedia:

Sir Terence David John “Terry” Pratchett, OBE (born 28 April 1948) is an English author of fantasy novels, especially comical works. He is best known for his Discworld series of about 40 volumes.

And on the guilds, ditto:

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of fantasy novels, there are almost 300 Guilds in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

The list of guilds includes ordinary occupational associations, with some surprises tucked in: alchemists, assassins, chefs, conjurers, fools, lawyers, rat-catchers, thieves, town criers, watchmen, …

Now, back to Greenfield’s book and her surprising story about one consequence of the way cochineal was cultivated in New Spain (from the paperback ed.):

p. 100: …. cochineal cultivation was an attractive way of generating the small cash income that most indigenous households needed or desired. Unlike most forms of paid labor under the Spaniards, it did not require Indians to part from their villages and families or to suffer the degradation of working directly under the people who had conquered them. Instead, it allowed them to work at home, in the company of their children and extended family.

p. 101: By the middle of the sixteenth century, the devastating twin impact of Spanish rule and Old World diseases had fragmented many native communities. Entire cultures were disappearing. But in areas where cochineal was grown – areas where people were able to make a living while remaining close to their kin – communities demonstrated a remarkable ability to withstand such pressures, many villages that grew cochineal were able to preserve their languages, traditions, and cultures for centuries, which helps explain why Oaxaca, the chief cochineal-producing region, remains today the most culturally and linguistically diverse state in Mexico.



3 Responses to “Linguistic diversity among the nopalries”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Pathologists like myself still use cochineal, as an alum lake called mucicarmine, as a stain for mucin in cancer cells.

    You often see fuzzy little cochineal insects on wild-growing Opuntia cactus plants around San Antonio. If you crush them between your fingernails you see a tiny droplet of brilliant red dye.

  2. Paul Nance Says:

    Thomas Weelke’s madrigal “Thule, the Period of Cosmography”, published in 1600, includes the lines:
    The Andalusian merchant, that returns
    Laden with cochineal and china dishes,
    Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
    Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes

    Wonderful music, wonderful images, even if the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1980) describes it as “one of the most remarkable examples of musical settings of ostensibly unmusical words.”

  3. Mexican independence | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A fine flag: the customary few bands or stripes of color, making it easy to recognize (though not necessarily easy to distinguish from other national flags); plus the dramatic coat-of-arms scene in the center, involving the eagle, the serpent, and the nopales. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: