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Margaritas

Etymology for a summer-time drink in late autumn

Although the tequila-filled citrusy cocktail drank everywhere that the weather is warm got its name from a Spanish term for a flower, its etymology runs farther than the Iberian Peninsula.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

Most adults have probably drunk a margarita. Whether or not this became a habit, many of us know what they taste like. For English speakers, the name is synonymous with the drink. In Spanish, margararita is more widely the term for a daisy (the flower), or used as a person’s name. When the word began to be applied to a stagger-inducing cocktail is a mystery (as these things typically are), though there are a number of contenders for coining the phrase. Whoever the original mixologist was, they probably didn’t think about the long history of the word: originally, it was used to denote a pearl.

Whomever we should blame for so many morning-after headaches, they chose a word that has deep roots not just in Spain, but the wider Mediterranean and Near East. Margarita passed into Spanish from Latin as the former evolved over the course of post-Classical history. In turn, it had come to the Romans from further east. Its origins ultimately seem to lay in ancient Persia, where the small precious baubles were probably called morwārīd by the time that Alexander the Great’s army rampaged across the region in the later fourth century BC. Before this time, pearls do not seem to have been used for decorative or other purposes in the Mediterranean basin.

The ultimate origin of your citrus-y drink’s name is thus a people far from Mexico. But the story is a little more complicated. We would certainly not know this word in our language today if it wasn’t for the Romans developing an obsession with the little mollusk boogers. The first Mediterranean peoples to really venture into the Near East – the Macedonians and those along for the ride – do not seem to have had much interest in the items (Schneider 2019, pp. 136-8).

However, with the conquest of much of Europe and the Mediterranean by the Romans came a sudden demand for pearls. Indeed, Rome became pearl-mad, with their obsession being compared by some ancient commentators to a child staring at flames. Pearls were so sought after that a market developed for even the less desirable examples, which ended up being sold to the Roman poor (Schneider 2019, pp. 139-48). It was almost certainly this level of popularity that saw the Latin term margarita survive into the vernacular languages that emerged after Latin Rome’s demise in the fifth century AD.

And there is the short history of how an icy beverage favored by many throughout the world got its name, from the perspective of the longue durée. So, next time you order a margarita, or are given one by a friend, tell them: “You are an excellent margaritarius/a (pearl merchant).” Help keep alive this quirky, minor, legacy of Mediterranean globalization and have a deep think about how a few traders in the last few centuries before the common era appear to be responsible for the name that in more recent times has been given to this refreshing beverage.

Further reading

For more, I recommend you check out Pierre Schneider, “Erythraean pearls in the Roman world: features and aspects of luxury consumption (late second century BCE-second century CE),” in: M.A. Cobb (ed.), The Indian Ocean Trade in Antiquity: Political, Cultural and Economic Impacts (2019), pp. 135-156.

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