America's Gift

America’s Gift: What the World Owes to the Americas and Their First Inhabitants

By Raquel Rivera

A review of America's Gift: What The World Owes To The Americas And Their First Inhabitants by Käthe Roth and Denis Vaugeois

Published on November 1, 2009

America’s Gift: What The World Owes To The Americas And Their First Inhabitants
Käthe Roth and Denis Vaugeois

Baraka Books
$24.95
paper
276pp
978-0-9812405-2-7

Did you know that the word potato comes from the Taino word batata? Or that the word chipmunk comes from the Ojibway atchitamon? Authors Käthe Roth and Denis Vaugeois have put together a fascinating compendium of English words that owe their etymological origins to native languages of the Americas.

But America’s Gift does more than this; working within the structure of an illustrated dictionary, Roth and Vaugeois also manage to demonstrate how the civilizations of pre-contact America affected the way the world lives, eats, and thinks today. In addition to specific words, broader thematic entries are incorporated, on topics such as nutrition, team sports, electrification, and slavery.

In his foreword, Vaugeois refers to the numerous reports that were brought back to Europe by early explorers and missionaries – reports that marveled at the egalitarian nature of many of the aboriginal societies. He points out that these widely read publications had an impact on writers such as Thomas More, Montaigne, and Voltaire. The authors make good use of the foreword and introduction to place the book’s material in a greater context, while offering readers some history of early contact and clashes between the cultures of Europe and the Americas.

Many of the words listed in America’s Gift refer to native plants and animals. Tomato, for example (from the Nahuatl language tomatl) is the American-born fruit that would go on to transform Italian cuisine. Other words describe products, such as the original jerky made from llama meat (from the Quechuan language ch’arki or charqui). There are admittedly few words that refer to abstract notions, although readers will find that the word mugwump (one who remains neutral, or is unable to make a decision) comes from the Massachusetts language’s mugquomp. English may have incorporated fewer aboriginal words than other languages: under the entry Tupi-Guanari, it is shown that contributions by this group of aboriginal languages would make a Brazilian Portugese edition of this book staggeringly heavy.

A couple of entries ought to be clarified. Why, for example, should the word caucus be attributed to the Algonkian word for counsellor, caucawasu, and not the Latin caucum or the Greek kâukos? A brief explanation – or definitions of the contested words – is in order. Also, the linguistic root of the word tobacco is contradicted within the entry itself, with no reconciliation.

But looking at the bigger picture – and Roth and Vaugeois do an admirable job of painting big pictures within small entries – America’s Gift is a thought-provoking read that will be a valuable resource for students and scholars alike. Perhaps the most striking testimonial of the authors’ accomplishment lies in its own summary of words, the “Contents by Subject” section in the back. America’s Gift is best enjoyed by picking a word from this list and following one’s nose through the entries and their cross-references. The gist of the authors’ message grows clear: the Americas were far from being a “new” world that was discovered by the old. Rather, “the encounter of two old worlds gave rise to a truly new world on both sides of the Atlantic.” On both sides of the Atlantic and well beyond, as Roth and Vaugeois demonstrate.

Published originally on the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, the French language L’Indien généreux. Ce que le monde doit aux Amériques, has been reprinted consistently since. Now English-language readers may enjoy the bounty of America’s Gift. mRb

Raquel Rivera is a Montreal artist, and author of "Tuk and the Whale" (Groundwood).

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