plural -s
: the oily seed of a South American plant (Fevillea trilobata) that is used in making candles

Word History


borrowed from American Spanish (Peru) abilla, jabilla, name for Fevillea cordifolia and closely related species, diminutive of American Spanish haba, jaba, name for the tree Hura polyandra, probably from Spanish haba "broad bean"

Note: Early documentation is cited in A. H. Gentry and R. H. Wettach, "Fevillea—A New Oil Seed from Amazonian Peru," Economic Botany, vol. 40:2 (1986), pp. 177-185. Their oldest citation is from John Lindley and Thomas Moore, The Treasury of Botany (London: Longmans, 1866), p. 491: "F. cordifolia is the Sequa or Cacoon Antidote of Jamaica, where it is a common plant in shady woods, climbing to a great height up the trunks of trees. The seeds of an allied species called Abilla in Peru, contain so much oil that the Peruvians use them for making candles." Gentry and Wettach speculate that this information stems from the journals of the botanical explorer Richard Spruce, who was in South America from 1849 to 1864. Some of Spruce's journals were published after his death as Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, edited by Alfred Russel Wallace (London: Macmillan, 1908); the "Glossary of Native Names" on p. 518 of this book contains the following entry: "ABILLA, JABILLA. A twiner with large seeds producing a bitter oil for lamps on the Huallaga river." Note that jabilla/jabillo as well as haba/jaba are names in the Spanish of Mexico, Central America, and the Greater Antilles for the trees Hura polyandra and H. crepitans. The plants are very dissimilar, but the seeds of both are similarly large, thick, and round—hence, presumably, the association with haba, the broad bean. In Spain abilla turns up in 19th-century dictionaries as a name for the seeds of a common species of mallow (Malva rotundifolia); see, for example Nomenclatura farmacéutica y sinonimia general de farmacia y de materia médica, by Manuel Jiménez, 2. parte (Madrid, 1826), p. 214, "Apendice … Abilla—Semilla de la Malva rotundifolia L."; also Vocabulario de todas las voces que faltan á los diccionarios de la lengua castellana, Luis Marty Caballero (Madrid, 1857), p. 10, "Abilla … semilla de la malva comun." This word may be an independent derivative.

First Known Use

1884, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of abilla was in 1884

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Cite this Entry

“Abilla.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abilla. Accessed 16 Jun. 2024.

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