The avocado, like corn, fig, tobacco, and sugar cane, is what is known as a "cultigen"; that is, it is a cultivated species which was domesticated so far back in antiquity and has undergone such drastic transformation under prehistoric human selection that its ancestry is unknown. Plant distribution and taxonomic evidence are compatible with the assumption that the avocado did originate in south central Mexico or nearby. The Aztecs knew it well and called the fruit aoacatl. Transliterated into the language of today, the original Aztec name for the avocado is ahuacatl. This name is still used in parts of Mexico where the Aztec language has not been entirely replaced by Spanish. Their word for tree is quahuitl. So the avocado tree becomes ahuacaquahuitl. The journey from aoacatl to avocado is an interesting one.
"Yaharo is a good port, with good lands, and here are groves of many different sorts of edible fruits, among others is one which looks like an orange, and when it is ready for eating it turns yellowish; that which it contains is like butter and is of marvelous flavor, so good and pleasing to the palate that it is a marvelous thing." When Martin Fernandez De Encisco wrote these lines in "Suma de Geografia" (1519), Florida and California were still undiscovered to Europeans, who had only just starting to explore the new continent. He gave no name to the fruit which would later become an important horticulture crop in those states.
The first European to give a name to the fruit appears to have been Pedro do Cieza de Leon, writing between 1532 and 1550, he referred to it under the names "aguacate" and "palta," a name for the fruit used by the Incas. The Incas had only recently discovered the avocado themselves when they conquered an area where it was being cultivated. "Tupac Inca Yupanqui marched to the province of Canari, and on the road he conquered another called Palta, whence they brought to the warm valley near Cuzco the wholesome and delicious fruit called Palta." This is from the "Royal Commentaries of the Incas," published in 1605 by Garcilaso de la Vega. It is known that Tupac Yupanqui's conquest of the northern provinces took place sometime about 1450-1475.
It seems that all of the early explorers choked on the Aztec name aoacatl and it was soon corrupted by the Spaniards to ahuacate and aguacate.
Spreading it around
Starting with corrupted mainland names, the fruit was carried elsewhere acquiring local vernacular names as it went, most of them derived from ahuacate. An English merchant, by the name of Hawkes, whose travels in Mexico were published by Hakluyt in 1589, mentioned having seen this fruit, which, with the usual clumsiness of the early writers in spelling plant names foreign to their tongues, he called alvacata. This appears to be the first mention of the avocado in an English publication. The fruit soon appeared in the West Indies, where new varieties developed. It was in these tropical islands that many travelers first encountered avocados, among them the young George Washington, who wrote in 1751 that "agovago pears" were abundant and popular in the Barbados. In Spain it became known as abogado. In French-speaking countries, it is avocatier. Among Dutch-speakers, avocaat. In Trinidad and Tobago, zaboca. In Jamaica, it was variously referred to as avocado, avocato, avacato, avigato, albecatta, or the rather repugnant alligator pear.
It is to Sir Hans Sloane that we owe the name avocado. This distinguished naturalist published in 1696 a catalogue of the plants of Jamaica, among which he listed, but did not describe, this tree. "The Avocado or Alligator Pear-Tree. It grows in gardens and fields throughout Jamaica."
Settling on a name
At the beginning of the present century, when avocado growing first began to receive serious attention in the United States, there was a great divergence of opinion regarding the correct name of this fruit. One author had listed over 40 different names for this fruit! In Florida, which received its first trees and name via the West Indies, the accepted appellation was Alligator Pear. In California however, whither the fruit had arrived northward from Mexico, the name aguacate was more common. And in both California and Florida, avocado and avocado pear had met with considerable acceptance.
Interested horticulturists felt that it was a mistake to encourage - even tolerate - further use of alligator pear, on the grounds that this name was misleading, ungraceful, and generally objectionable. The American Pomological Society and the U. S. Department of Agriculture - both arbiters of high standing - approved and adopted avocado, but the Californians leaned toward aguacate, and for a time stuck to their guns. They even went so far as to undertake a return to the purer spelling of ahuacate. It seemed highly probable, at this time, that alligator pear would become the accepted commercial name unless all concerned got together on some other, less objectionable name. So the Californians gave up what appeared a useless fight and joined the Easterners in sponsoring the name avocado. Thus the name avocado.
Sources of Information:
Popenoe, Wilson. 1963. Early History of the Avocado. Calif. Avocado Soc. Yearbook. 47:19-24.
Storey, W. B., B. Bergh, G. A. Zentmyer. 1987. The Origin, Indigenous Range, and Dissemination of the Avocado. Calif. Avocado Soc. Yearbook. 70:127-133.
Gustafson, Don. 1967. History of the Avocado. San Diego County Agriculture Extension Service.