Mexican X-plainer: Is “Cigarette” Mayan?

The interconnections among languages are fascinating. For example, you’ve probably assumed that “cigarette” is from French, and you may have realized that it’s the diminutive of “cigare,” adopted into French from the Spanish “cigarro.”

Many Spanish speakers may have assumed that word was taken from “cigarra” (cicada) … because of the shape?

Here’s an interesting wrinkle.

Of the thirty living Mayan languages, more than half have a word related to tobacco or smoking tubes that sounds similar to “cigar.”

Achi (from Guatemala) has “sikaar,” as does Sakapultek. K’iche’ has the shorter “siik’” (tobacco). Tzotzil and Tzeltal (from Southern Mexico) use “sik’ol” to mean “cigarette.”

In fact, nearly 40 Central Mayan languages, living and dead, have or once had very similar words.

A Maya man, smoking his tobacco. There was no Surgeon General.

Noticing the pattern, linguists compared these lexical items. Guess what they realized? There must have been a proto-Central Mayan root, arising about 3,000 years ago, meaning “tobacco.”

It has come down nearly unchanged in many Mayan languages:


Central Mayan words for tobacco and cigarette.

Eastern Mayan languages (mostly spoken in Guatemala) have verbs for “to smoke” that come from the root *siik’ plus a verbal ending, often a’ or ah. That gives us something like “siik’ah,” which, hey, sounds pretty much like “cigar,” doesn’t it?

Different Eastern Mayan words for “to smoke” or “smokes it”

As far as anyone can be sure about etymology without documentary evidence, we are confident that *siik’ is the origin of “cigarrette.”

Next time you or someone near you lights up a “cig,” think on that history.

The Maya god of tobacco, lighting up.