In my other blog a few days ago I showed a photograph of two native plants: a bud of Indian mallow in front of a flower head of Indian blanket. Those names reminded me that when Europeans came to America and encountered plants that were new to them yet reminded them of things from home, they sometimes called them Indian this and Indian that, as in the two cases I’ve mentioned. One very common name of that type was Indian corn, meaning ‘Indian grain.’ The term survived in the United States through the 1800s, but ultimately the Indian fell away and only the corn remained. In England, where corn retains its original sense of ‘grain,’ the word for this particular grain is maize, which Spanish speakers recognize in their cognate maíz. Maize exists in American English, too, of course, but is much less used than corn.

As for native English corn, it goes back to the Indo-European root *g-no-, whose main Latin descendant was granum, the ancestor of Spanish grano. Granum was also the ancestor of Old French grain, which has passed into English and is therefore a doublet of corn.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 08:37:05

    Actually, “Indian corn” is a very common term for the colored corn varieties – red, blue, orange – that are widely used as autumn decoration. Indian corn also forms the basis for the annual art created at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. And people say there’s nothing to see in the midwest!

    Maize seems to have taken on another meaning as well. When I was living in South Texas, “maize” was the name used for this crop , also known as milo or sorghum. When I was up in Kansas and found an old grave in a field filled with the stuff, I asked a local what they called the crop growing there. He said, “Maize”. It’s possible, I suppose, that “maize” has become a catch-all word for grain crops other than what we generally assume when we hear the word “corn”.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 21, 2013 @ 08:47:49

      That’s a good clarification: while the term Indian corn no longer refers to corn in general, you point out that it does still refer to the colored varieties.

      I became aware of the Corn Palace after a friend of mine visited it when we were still children. Half a century later, South Dakota is one of only four states I’ve still never been in, but I hope to visit it someday and see, among other things, the Corn Palace.

      I didn’t know about the colloquial use of maize for milo or sorghum. Thanks for mentioning it.


  2. Bill
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 09:23:20

    I knew that “corn” means grain in the U.K. and that what we call corn is called maize there, but I did not know that our “corn” is a shortened version of the original “Indian corn.” Very interesting. Thanks for sharing that.


  3. Juan
    Jul 13, 2013 @ 10:33:51

    In Spain we have the standard Spanish maíz and also another word for English maize or corn: millo, which is used in Galicia, some of the Leonese-speaking area and the Canary Islands. Canarians took it from Portuguese immigrants (milho) and usually make a lot of fun about Peninsular Spaniards saying mazorca de maíz (with a recurring -Z- which does not exist in the Canarian dialect) instead of piña de millo (English corncob). Millo/milho comes from Latin milium, whose original meaning remains in another of its Spanish offsprings, as well as in English: mijo and millet respectively. Regards!


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