The previous post, about cacto/cactus, concluded with a picture showing the spines of a cactus commonly called a prickly pear. At the right of that photograph, and mostly out of the frame, was a bright red object that is the “pear” of the prickly pear, a fruit that Spanish calls a tuna. Here’s a better look at one:

Prickly Pear Cactus Tuna from Side 6057

When Europeans explored the New World, naturally they came across many plants and animals that they hadn’t seen before. Sometimes they named them by recycling or modifying familiar words from home, as when English speakers called this cactus fruit a prickly pear. At other times Europeans adopted the names used by native peoples, with allowances made, of course, for the limits of phonology in the borrowing language. Tuna happens to be a word that Spanish borrowed from the Taíno languages of the Caribbean, and now English has taken it from Spanish. These cactus fruits are now available in many supermarkets across the United States, but the Taíno languages have become extinct.

Even if those languages no longer exist, some familiar words in Spanish (and hence English) are of Taíno origin, as you can see from the list in the middle of the relevant Wikipedia article.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 18:33:28

    I actually thought “tuna” was for English, and “atún” for Spanish, I had no idea it was a Taíno indian word. What I found here was the Opuntia auberi, which is a subgenus (Opuntioideae) of the larger Opuntia ficus-indica. They call them “tunitas”.


  2. Maria F.
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 19:06:25

    You’ve got it, I found it at Merriam-Webster’s ”

    Definition of TUNA

    : any of various flat-jointed prickly pears (genus Opuntia); especially : one (O. tuna) of tropical America
    : the edible fruit of a tuna

    Origin of TUNA

    Spanish, from Taino


  3. Maria F.
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 19:09:18

    The second definition is the American Spanish alteration referring to the fish: atún, modification of Arabic tūn, from Latin thunnus, from Greek thynnos. Enough to drive me crazy.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 03, 2015 @ 22:04:59

      Spanish tuna is unrelated to the English tuna that names a fish. English has borrowed the Spanish tuna that names a cactus fruit. The English tuna that names a fish is a cognate of the Spanish atún that does the same thing. I’ll grant that it can be confusing.


      • shoreacres
        Jan 02, 2016 @ 23:22:47

        I’ll say it’s confusing — and even more so, now that Maria stopped by my blog and mentioned the Spanish musical groups known as tunas.

        I’ve managed to refresh my memory on the naming of the tuna that graces the cactus, and how the funa fish got its name. But I still can’t quite get my mind around that third tuna: the musical group. It seems unrelated to the other two etymologies, which is pretty fascinating itself: one word, with three histories.

        I did find one person on a forum proposing that the connection between the cactus fruit and the musical group is the color red in the musicians’ costumes, but even I wasn’t willing to buy into that one. Any thoughts?


        • shoreacres
          Jan 02, 2016 @ 23:29:38

          Of course, another way to say, “Any thoughts?” is “Help!”


          • Steve Schwartzman
            Jan 03, 2016 @ 00:41:42

            That other tuna (which I’ll confess I hadn’t been familiar with) started out in old French slang in the form tune and with the meaning ‘a poorhouse for beggars.’ You’re correct that it has nothing to do etymologically with the Spanish tuna that is ‘a prickly pear fruit’ nor with the English tuna. I don’t know if you’ll be able to follow all the Spanish, but I found the etymology at


            This is a strange one.


            • shoreacres
              Jan 03, 2016 @ 08:56:56

              Many thanks. I was able to follow the Spanish, and I’ve added the information in my blog comment. As I mentioned there, I’m fascinated by the fact that what appears to be the same word, isn’t — and that the words have different roots in the three contexts.


  4. Maria F.
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 22:46:07

    So English took “Tuna” for the fish, because the fruit resemble the “Tuna” fish.


  5. Maria F.
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 22:50:57

    But reading further, for the fish they took it from from Thunnus, the Middle Latin form of the Ancient Greek: θύννος (thýnnos) “tunny-fish” – which is in turn derived from θύνω (thýnō), “rush, dart along”.


  6. Maria F.
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 22:56:12

    I see, they are totally unrelated, even when English decided to keep it for the fish anyway.


  7. melissabluefineart
    Feb 05, 2015 @ 09:18:41

    That tuna looks familiar… 🙂


  8. shoreacres
    Feb 05, 2015 @ 09:57:58

    How can it be that no one has taken the tuna as a model for a hot air balloon? The saguaro’s had it’s day in the sun, so to speak, but look at that tuna’s shape. It would be perfect to have the tuna as the balloon, with a cactus-like basket. Since the prickly pear’s our state plant, someone needs to get with it.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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