Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Chocolate Linguistics: You Say Cocoa, I Say Cacao

"Cacao" must be an absolute indulgence for linguists. The word originated with the Olmec civilization in what is now Mexico. It was then adopted by the Maya, transliterated by the Spanish, and appropriated by the speakers of almost every other modern European language. But where does "cacao" end and "cocoa" begin, and why does one word seem like an awkward rearranging of the other?

In one of the most accessible books on buying, eating, and baking with chocolate (David Lebovitz's The Great Book of Chocolate), I read that "[i]t is believed the name "cocoa" came about as the result of a misspelling by early English traders." Since David Lebovitz is also one of the most accessible cookbook authors, I emailed him to ask about his sources.

He got his information, he told me, for one of the smartest men in the chocolate business, Scharffen Berger co-founder Robert Steinberg. Steinberg, a contemplative traveler and incessant journal writer, sounds like my kind of guy. But he's semi-retired, traveling with his journal, and not all that accessible. Since I couldn't return to the source, I looked up several other chocolate experts from several different countries and asked them to define the words "cacao" and "cocoa."

(The glossary below is part of a joint post with my friend Leila Darabi of Everyday Trash about the specialized vocabularies of our blogs. Leila's a journalist, a spokesperson for a reproductive health think tank, and the smartest trash blogger out there).

In your own words, what's the difference between cocoa and cacao?

Martin Christy
British chocolate lecturer and editor of the encyclopedic resource Seventy Percent
Personally, I use these words in a more or less interchangeable way, often depending on the audience I'm addressing. Although 'cocoa' has taken on various meanings in the US and Britain, it's just an Anglicised version of 'cacao,' that probably came about through error.

If I'm making a presentation to newcomers to fine chocolate in the UK, I often stick to 'cocoa' as the word for the crop, which is more familiar to British ears, and also we know it here as an synonym for cocoa powder. If I have more time, or a more advanced group of tasters, I use 'cacao' for everything to do with Theobroma cacao - the plant, the beans and the fruit.

This is of course all confused by the use of 'cocoa' in the international trading of cacao, and even the industry's official world body goes with the English version - it's the International COCOA Organisation. (Then again ICCO comes with two 'C's, but that's another story.)

'Cacao' is the closest word we have to the original Nahuatl, Aztec word, which probably has a history going back a thousand years or more. I believe we should use this in all cases where we might have used 'cocoa', and reserve 'chocolate' for bars or drinks made with refined cacao, sugar, maybe vanilla and not too much else. This might sound strange to the ears of English speakers at first, but it's not so bad once you get used to it.

Mariangeles Soto-Diaz
Venezualan-born abstract painter whose current show is "The Divine Geometry of Chocolate"
The way I understand it (I'm neither an expert nor a writer) cacao is the word used to designate the species part in the name of the tree (Theobroma Cacao) originating in the Olmec civilization and passed on to the Mayan and later to the Spanish. The word also refers to the bean from which chocolate is made, and to the ancient form of currency. Cacao butter is the fat that comes from the nibs, and the cacao solids (cocoa) that are left in the process are critical in the making of fine chocolate. The confusion I've heard partly stems from the use of the term cocoa interchangeably with cacao to refer not to the cacao solids but to the defatted powder that you might use for a drink.

Cacao, then, often comes before cocoa—and not only in the dictionary. But once in a while they circulate together, in semantic confusion, thrown into an unconcerned chocolate mix. One thing is certain: both are equally indispensable in the process of making real chocolate and later forgotten by the discerning tongue.

[In Spanish,] we only use the term cacao, which avoids the cacao-cocoa confusion. And to refer to the drink, we simply call it chocolate caliente (hot chocolate).

Sam Madell
Socially-conscious chocolate maker at Tava in Australia
Cacao is, of course, the botanical name for the plant species in question, Theobroma cacao. I usually use the generic term "cocoa" instead, but I consider cocoa and cacao to be essentially interchangeable, EXCEPT when you're talking about the botanical species. In other words, the term "Theobroma COCOA" is incorrect. If I'm talking about "cocoa", I'd usually add a qualifier like cocoa tree, cocoa bean, cocoa powder ... whatever.

Jacques Torres
French chocolatier behind New York's Chocolate Haven and proponent of the word "cacao"
Cocoa means nothing to me.

Each one accurate, insightful, and different from the next, these definitions are a fascinating contrast to the (equally accurate and insightful) one I started with:

David Lebovitz
American pastry chef, author, and blogger living in Paris
Cacao refers to the pod (cacao pods), the beans within (cacao beans), and the pure paste of the bean (cacao paste or cacao "liquor").

Cocoa is the powder made from the cacao bean, which is mashed into a paste then pounded to extract the cocoa butter and pulverized into a dry powder.
--from The Great Book of Chocolate

(Photos: Jairus Cobb)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see you have a photographer now. You are moving up in the world. Before long you'll have your own choclate cooking show!

9:24 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Cybele said...

I'm with David L - cacao is the source, but the powder after roasting and processing is cocoa.

But folks who look down their nose at others because of word choice are snooty-patooties. (Just like some folks use pop or soda or coke for a bubbly sweet drink ... you know what they mean ... that's what language is for, communication, not stratification.)

3:05 PM GMT-5  
Blogger LUCA Chocolate said...

Fascinating stuff. I've wondered the same thing many times before. I love how in depth your research is!

3:56 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really nice post.

On the subject of the language of cocoa, I notice with interest that three of the four people you quote (including me) mention cocoa "beans".

Technically, cocoa beans are not beans at all. True beans come from true pods ... and, um, cocoa "pods" are not really pods (they're drupes!).

Call it the language of convenience!!

10:28 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Carlos Coronado said...

Hello Emily!! as a fanatic and lover of that magic element named Cacao, I think that I am with Jacques Torres " Cacao means nothing to me" This is the way I picture both words:
Cocoa:100% Commercial name, someone says Cocoa and the mayority of the people would think of chocolate.

Cacao:Original and scientific name, you hear this magic word and what comes into your mind is this worderful fruit, not chocolate.

3:19 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Unknown said...

"Cacao" does come from the Latin and cocoa is some sort of corruption that came into popular usage, perhaps because it is less harsh and easier to pronounce.

I tend to use "cacao" in its botanical sense to refer to the tree, fruit, and seeds (e.g., cacao tree, cacao pod (or drupe as Sam points out), and cacao seed, and use "cocoa" to refer to the 'bean' (fermented, dried cacao seed) and products derived from the bean (cocoa powder, cocoa butter, etc.).

Whether or not it is botanically correct (ref pod v drupe), I like the seed -> bean analogy. Seeds are viable and can reproduce, beans are not and cannot. So (to my way of thinking) cacao seeds turn into cocoa beans during post-harvest processing.

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree.

Clay Gordon
Author, Discover Chocolate

7:56 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A quick correction on my earlier comment: the fruit of the cocoa tree is neither a pod, nor a drupe ... in fact, discussions with Alan of Patric Chocolate put "berry" out in front as the winning term!

3:13 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Unknown said...

Haha...I ran across this post looking for the proper pronunciation of the liquor creme de cacao. It seems that in an even more messed up manner it is pronounced creme de cocoa (co-co - even though its spelled cacao) in the United States. However I ran across a few references that it is pronounced creme de cacao (ca-cay-o) in France - which jibes with the info presented here for the French...funny! I also saw cacao was pronounced ca-cow in some places. Craziness. I guess I learned something new today.

11:27 AM GMT-5  
Blogger phthartic said...

I also was looking for agreement on the pronunciation of Creme de Cacao. (And yes, the first word is pronounced crem, not cream.)

I'm an American, and I was told it was pronounced ca-COW when I wondered about it over 30 years ago.

To me, that's the only logical way TO pronounce it. Ca-cay-o simply seems odd and stilted to my ear.

The plant's origins would seem to be places where either Spanish or Portuguese is currently spoken. 'cao' looks like a Portuguese construction, though it's presumably older than that.

Why the heck not pronounce it the simple way it's spelled? I'm not sure if co-co really is how most Americans would pronounce it, but if so it's because they're sloppy readers. They see a picture of chocolate on the label and simply assume it must say 'cocoa.'

It's fine with me if we want to use cocoa to refer to the final product, but especially if we English speakers messed it up in the first place, we ought to at least pronounce the original word the right way, not blindly insist that it's spelled differently than it is.

7:54 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

simply dropping by to say hi

1:53 PM GMT-5  

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