To the Root of it All

A friend and I dined at a Mexican restaurant recently, and as I hungrily perused the menu (we had just walked his dog all over Mystic) I noticed many entrée descriptions mentioned “carnitas.” Now I’ve heard of enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas and chimichangas, but never carnitas (Mexican menu items are so much fun to pronounce, especially “guacamole” and “chicken chimichanga”). Neither my friend nor I knew what a carnita was, but as a former student of Latin I knew the importance of word roots. Many, many English words are derived from Greek and Latin roots and share a common meaning. I reasoned that “carnita” must have something to do with meat, due to the root “carn” such as we see in the words “carnivore” and “carnal ” (but not carnival or carnation – this method isn’t foolproof!*) I also knew that the ending “-ita” or “-ito” usually means small, as in “burrito. ” Indeed, we discovered from our waiter that carnitas – “little meats” – are basically shredded pork.

I had the Chicken Tijuana.

*Actually, these two seemingly unrelated words do share the “carn/meat” root if you dig deep enough, but they have lost some of that meaning over the years. “Carnival” means the putting away of flesh (food), originally a reference to Ash Wednesday, and “carnation” refers to the deep red or pink (flesh) color of the flower.

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