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This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999.

Taco Tales

William J. Bennetta

The Prentice Hall division of Pearson Education has produced a book titled The American Nation (dated in 2000), and Pearson is peddling it to high schools as an American-history text.

Any resemblance between American history and the stuff in The American Nation is accidental. The American Nation is a book of multi-culti fictions and deceptions, and it is close kin to West Publishing's United States History: In the Course of Human Events [see note 1, below] and to Prentice Hall's own America: Pathways to the Present [note 2]. Streams of disinformation and misrepresentation flow throughout The American Nation, and they converge, now and again, to form pools of lies. Let us plumb one of those pools.

After offering an ignominiously deficient account of the Mexican War, Prentice Hall's writers mention the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and the Gadsden Purchase (1853) -- both of which resulted in America's acquiring territory from Mexico. (The terms Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden aren't explained.) Then, on page 364, the writers do a multi-culti number by purporting to describe a "mix of cultures" that occurred when "English-speaking settlers" poured into "the Southwest." As a result of that mixing, the writers say, many Spanish and Amerindian words, "such as stampede, buffalo, tortilla, soda, and tornado," were absorbed into "the English language."

The writers are lying. None of those words is Amerindian, only one of them (tortilla) is Spanish, and all of them had been used in English before the 1850s. Indeed, some of them had been used for centuries:

buffalo      The history of our English word buffalo goes back to boubalos, the ancient Greek name for a kind of antelope. From boubalos came the classical Latin bubalus, which was transmuted into the vulgar Latin bufalus, which later gave rise to such derivatives as the Portuguese búfalo and the Italian bufolo. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the English buffalo originated from a Portuguese precursor. Several early occurrences of the English word are quoted in the OED, beginning with a specimen from 1588 -- "They [Chinese farmers] doo plough and till their ground with kine, Bufalos, and bulles."

To see that the English buffalo was used here in America before the 1850s, we need only read some passages in the journal of Meriwether Lewis, one of the leaders of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In May 1805, for example, Lewis wrote: ". . . we passed, on the star[board] side, the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians . . . . in this manner, the Indians of the Missouri distroy vast herds of buffaloe at a stroke; . . . ."

Lewis was referring, of course, to herds of the American bison -- the animal whose scientific name is Bison bison. The English buffalo has been applied to various other beasts as well, including Syncerus caffer (the Cape buffalo, indigenous to southern Africa) and Bubalus bubalis (the water buffalo, indigenous to Asia).

soda      This word can be traced to medieval Latin, whence it was absorbed (without modification) into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and English, among other languages. In English, soda has served for centuries as a name for various minerals, for several compounds of sodium, and for sodium itself (as in bicarbonate of soda). A quotation in the OED shows that soda was established in English by the mid-1500s: The author of a document published in 1558 used soda to denote the mineral residue -- the "asshes" -- obtained by burning a kind of grass, and he noted that the mineral was employed by makers of glass. Without doubt, the "asshes" consisted largely of sodium carbonate. This compound is still used in the manufacture of glass and is commonly called soda ash.

stampede      The English word stampede descended from the Mexican Spanish estampida, which came from estampido -- a Spanish word denoting a loud noise or a crashing. Derivatives of estampida began to appear in English during the 1820s. They included stompado, stampido, stampedo and, eventually, stampede.

tornado      Although the English tornado looks like something borrowed from Portuguese or from Spanish, it is English through and through: It was coined and adopted by Englishmen in the 1500s. During the late 1500s and the 1600s, it was variously written as ternado, turnado, tournado and tornado. Quotations given in the OED indicate that the spelling became more stable by the 1700s, with tornado as the prevalent form. The OED speculates that this word may have originated as an Englishman's blundered spelling of the Spanish tronada, thunderstorm.

tortilla      This is the diminutive of the Spanish torta, which denotes a cake. The OED quotes an English writer who in 1699 rendered the plural, tortillas, as tartilloes -- "Tartilloes are small Cakes made of the Flower of Indian Corn." By the 1800s, writers in English were using the same spellings that occurred in Spanish: tortilla and tortillas.

Along with their lying about "the English language," the writers of The American Nation present some multi-culti hokum about technology. As "English-speaking settlers" entered the Southwest, the writers say, "Mexican Americans taught the newcomers how to mine silver and irrigate the soil for growing crops."

The notion that mining and irrigation were unknown to people who spoke English, and that the practice of supplying water to croplands had to be revealed to English-speakers by Mexicans, is nonsense. It reminds me of some similar stuff that surfaced several years ago, when the writers of an Addison-Wesley high-school textbook attempted to please the multi-culti gang by teaching that agricultural irrigation had been invented solely and uniquely by some Amerindians [note 3].

In this context, it is instructive to look at the history of our word irrigation -- a derivative from the Latin verb inrigare, to water. Englishmen were using the term irrigation, in its agricultural sense, by the early 1600s. And later, of course, both the practice of irrigation and the term irrigation were used by English-speaking Americans. Notice, for example, that articles about irrigation appeared in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, and that Thomas Jefferson included "irrigation" when he wrote a list of prospective tactics for ameliorating farmland at Monticello. (See his letter of 29 December 1794 to John Taylor.)

Pearson Education's tales may perhaps pass for "history" at a taco stand, but they have no place in any classroom. Neither does The American Nation.

Notes

  1. For three reviews of United States History: In the Course of Human Events, see TTL, January-February 1997. [return to text]

  2. For a review of America: Pathways to the Present, see TTL, March-April 1999. [return to text]

  3. See "Chief Thunderbottom, the Panderer's Friend" in TTL for November-December 1994. [return to text]


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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