While the vanilla plant and its flavorful bean have been a part of Western cuisine since the early sixteenth century, when Cortés acquired the plant from the Aztecs and first exported it to Europe, the word vanilla didn't enter the English lexicon until the mid-seventeenth century. The roots of the noun (not the plant) ultimately wind back to the Latin word vagina, which means “scabbard” or “sheath” and is also the source of the modern English noun vagina. (Sorry, feminists and lesbians, but it's true: etymologically speaking, the English vagina means “scabbard” and was once meant to imply just what you're thinking it did.) The Latin passed into Spanish as vaina, the diminutive form of which is vainilla (meaning, literally, “little scabbard”). As the story goes, when Cortés and his men saw the vanilla bean for the first time, they thought its long curving pod resembled a small sheath for a sword. Hence, they referred to the bean, as well as its source plant, as vainilla, and the name stuck. Around 1660, English speakers began using the Spanish name in reference to the plant, but as they were wont to do when borrowing from another language, they quickly Anglicized the word's form to vaynilla. It was another fifteen years or so before the English spelling changed to the now familiar vanilla, and it wasn't until 1728 that the word came to refer to not only the plant but also the flavoring extracted from its bean. The adjective form of vanilla that means “plain or ordinary” is an even later development, although etymologists and lexicographers do not all agree as to when it first came into use: some claim as early as 1846, whereas others say no earlier than the mid-twentieth century. But regardless of when the adjective sense was coined, all the experts agree that it was born out of the erroneous but commonly held notion that vanilla must be bland and boring because the things that it flavors are often white and colorless.
©2015 Michael R. Gates