Indian Corn’s Crisis of Identity

A colorful explanation of this new-old crop. Corn, in its many colors and varieties, has been a staple to the meals of humans for a long time.

| Winter 2013-2014

Every year as summer ripens into autumn, farm stands and craft shows begin offering Indian corn, from individual cobs to harvest-themed arrangements — clustered ears hanging by their husks, sections of cobs strung into wreaths, and even worked into wheat sheaves and corn shocks. Indian corn’s colorful kernels marry well with other emblems of autumn — blazing leaves and chrysanthemums as well as more reserved squash and straw bales, just to name a few. Yet while many people recognize Indian corn as a familiar symbol of fall, its identity is about as stable as fall’s shifting weather.

What’s in a name? In the case of Indian corn, it’s a collection of assumptions and misnomers. You could certainly make the argument that all corn should be called Indian corn, except for the fact that the “Indians” who developed it had nothing to do with India in the first place.

Plus, the word “corn” really has nothing to do with Zea mays (the botanical name for corn), but comes from German and Old English words for “grain” or “small hard particle.” For example, the “corn” in corned beef refers to corns or grains of salt used in curing the meat; and the Pennsylvania Dutch term for corn is “welshkarn,” which translates literally to “strange grain.”  

The name game gets even stranger. Corn was known in Europe as “Turkish wheat” for many years before scholars in the late 17th century made the argument that this grain was really from the West Indies, not Turkey, and should therefore be called “Indian wheat” instead. Of course, this point completely ignores the obvious fact that wheat and corn have absolutely nothing to do with each other. 

Even now, “corn” automatically means Zea mays only in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In British usage, for example, corn often refers to a region’s local grain, such as oats in Scotland. Until at least the turn of the 20th century, Americans typically referred to all corn and not just colorful varieties, as Indian corn. Maize, a Spanish derivative of the Arowak or Taino word “mahiz”, probably fits much better and enjoys more worldwide popularity, although even that name has a weak legitimacy at best. Maize just happens to be the European adaptation of the first American name the explorers heard.

What about “Lenchasquem,” the Lenni Lenape name, or “Wiachin” of the Quonnectiquot, or maybe the Mexican “Centli” or “Tluolli”? These are just a few of corn’s different Native American names. Plus, there are new names from across the globe. It’s enough to make your head spin!

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