Daily Archives: March 13, 2014


Now, there’s a word to make your hair stand on end. If you have any.

Look at it – its hair is already standing on end – those i i i and l t t l. Plus the two staring eyes o o, and the cup being flipped over u n. Oh, and then there’s the x and z, which are always rakish. An x at the beginning of a word is a frank dare to the Anglophone reader. But so is a tzc cluster. Even though it starts with xo, this is not a word you want to kiss and cuddle. Frankly, it looks like a nasty mess, and may seem vaguely vulgar.

So, um, how do you say it? Words that start with an x usually have a front vowel like e, i, or y after it. And they’re usually from Greek. This is not a Greek-looking word. No, in fact, it has some characteristics that point to another place: the tl, the use of c and z and x… and that daunting length, 14 letters. Could it be from the place that gave us axolotl and quetzalcoatl and Chicxulub? Why, yes. Those are all features of Spanish transliteration of indigenous Mexican words. And this word is Nahuatl (Aztec): Xolotl was the Aztec god of lightning and death, and itzcuintli means ‘dog’.

So we know the x is a “sh” sound, and we know that originally the tl represented the same voiceless lateral affricate we see in other languages in words such as Lhasa, but is in English said like any other “tl” – with a syllable boundary in the middle. Let me untangle it further for you: It’s five syllables, “show-low-eats-quint-lee.” (You can also say the beginning as “zo” rather than “sho,” but that’s an English-style spelling pronunciation.)

See it? Xoloitzcuintli. Also spelled xoloitzcuintle.

Also spelled Mexican hairless dog.

Yeah, that’s what this is. A big hairy name for a little hairless dog. (You can also call it just xolo to save some seconds because, you know, yolo.) If you have one of these guarding your house, you might as well just let the name do the guarding while the pooch shivers under your duvet.