\ ˈbiksə \

Definition of Bixa

: an American genus (the type of the family Bixaceae) of trees with cordate leaves and large pink or rose flowers — see annatto tree

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History and Etymology for Bixa

borrowed from New Latin, borrowed from Spanish bixa “achiote,” borrowed from Taino biša

Note: The Linnean name Bixa (as a species, Bixa orellana, in Species plantarum, 1753, p. 512), still maintained for the plant, goes back to Johann Bauhin and Johann Cherler’s Historia plantarum universalis, Yverdon, 1650 (vol. 1, p. 440), itself dependent on the Exoticorum libri decem (Leiden, 1605) of Carolus Clusius/Charles de l’Écluse (p. 74). Clusius, who describes a live plant grown from seeds given to him, cites as his source for the name Book 8, Chapter 6 of La historia general de las Indias (Seville, 1535) by the Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés: “Bixa este es arbusto o planta … Ay en esta y en las otras yslas y en la tierra firme estas plantas de la bixa e son tan altas como estado y medio del altura de un hombre o menos … y echa unos frutos … dentro del cual estan unos granos colorados que se pegan como cera o mas viscosos / e de aquellos hazen unas pelotas los indios con que despues se pintan las caras … .” (“This bixa is a bush or plant … These bixa plants exist on this island [Hispaniola] and on other islands and on the continent and they are taller than a man by half a height or less … and it puts out fruit … inside of which there are red seeds that adhere as if wax or stickier … and from these the Indians make balls with which afterward they paint their faces … ”). Oviedo gives no more specific indication of the source of the word; it is localized to Hispaniola by Bartolomé de las Casas, in the 14th chapter of his Apologética historia sumaria: “Destos [granos] hacian los indios unas pelotillas, y con ellas se untaban y hacian coloradas las caras y los cuerpos, á jirones con la otra tinta negra [xagua], para cuando iban á sus guerras … llamaban esta color los indios bixa” (“From these [seeds] the Indians made little balls, and with these they smeared and reddened their faces and bodies, in stripes with the other black ink [xagua], when they went to war … they called this dye bixa”). Note that Oviedo uses bixa as the name of the plant, while for Las Casas it is the name of the dye. The insular Arawakan origin of the word is seconded by the entry bichet, glossed rocou “achiote” in the Lesser Antillean Arawak (“Island Carib”) dictionary of Raymond Breton (see Dictionnaire caraïbe-français, Révérend Père Raymond Breton, 1665, nouvelle édition, Paris: Karthala/IRD, 1999).

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Cite this Entry

“Bixa.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.

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