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Etymological dictionaries declare that the origins of the word coconut are found in Spanish and Portuguese, and they trace its earliest attestations to explorer accounts. While potentially true in a literal sense, this common narrative cloaks a much older European history of the fruit. By 1500, the name Indian nut for what we today call coconut was at least 1,000 years old and used in languages across Europe. In some specialist fields, Latinate Europeans also knew Arabic and even Sanskrit names for coconut. As European nations began conquering other parts of the world, however, they renamed the Indian nut, taking control of the name as they began to take control of the trade routes on which coconuts traveled.
After documenting medieval European names for coconut, this essay considers England's post-medieval adoption of the term coconut as a case study, linking its linguistic adoption of the name to the conquest and colonization of Jamaica in the second half of the seventeenth century. If Indian nut evoked precolonial relationships in which Europe was poor and India rich, coconut expressed Europe's new power and, in so doing, colonized the terminology of its own past. Only by recovering the precolonial European names for the coconut can we begin to decolonize this slice of history.