Tamales have been a favorite food in the US for over a century. Oddly, Spanish tamal is generally not used in the singular—English speakers tend to say “a tamale”.
This use is so widespread, especially in the phrase “hot tamale” (already a favorite item for sale from roadside stands and urban street vendors before the First World War), that it must be considered the correct English singular.
Another common phrase, “a (real) hot tamale”, describes a physically attractive woman, with a likely added connotation of sparkling, magnetic personality.
Why does English use this “incorrect” singular?
One hypothesis: English speakers inferred from the Spanish plural tamales that the singular must be formed by removing final ‘s’ (the English rule). Linguists call this “back-formation”; it’s how the verb “televise” arose from “television”, or “gruntled” as a humorous opposite of “disgruntled”.
The other possibility: the indigenous (Nahuatl) singular,tamalli, was widely used in old Mexican North/US Southwest Spanish dialect; Anglos might have picked up “tamale” that way.
But retroformation is highly likely. It’s what’s behind “a frijole” (instead of frijol), for instance.
The process occurs in all languages. In medieval Spanish, Sant’Iago (Saint James) became Santiago; retroformation led people to believe the saint’s name was Tiago (San Tiago). From there came the “invention” of the name Diego, highly popular today.
PS For a further reflection on “tamale” vs tamal, please click here.
A version of this essay first appeared in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, on 23 Sept. 2012.