Week sixty-six: CHINAMPA (probability 32345), by David Sutton

A CHINAMPA is a kind of floating garden used by the ancient Aztecs. A CHINAMPA was created by staking out part of a shallow lake bed and then fencing in the rectangle with wattle. The fenced-off area was then covered with mud and decaying vegetation, eventually bringing it above the level of the lake.

This is one of the surprisingly numerous words that come to us from Nahuatl, the language group spoken by the Aztecs, which is still in use today with 1.5 million speakers in Central America. Other words from the Nahuatl, which to us tend to have a memorably exotic quality which goes ironically with their low probability, include CACOMIXL (or CACOMIXLE), a carnivore related to the raccoons, HOATZIN (or HOACTZIN), a S. American bird whose young have clawed wings, HUISACHE, a kind of acacia, JICAMA, the edible tuberous root of a tropical American vine, AXOLOTL, a kind of salamander, GUAYULE, a silvery-leaved shrub of the daisy family and ZOPILOTE, an American black vulture. More playable words include TEOPAN and TEOCALLI, both names for the Aztec pyramidal temple, and the useful IXTLE (or ISTLE) a fibre obtained from the agave.


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