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I keep hearing "corn" as a synonym of "maize". This is widely popularized worldwide by popcorn. However, this is American English! In British English, "corn" can mean any type of "grain", especially "wheat", as in the Corn Laws. Why does "corn" mean "maize" in American English? Is there a historical reason to account for this change of meaning?

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In British English, "corn" can mean any type of "grain": increasingly not really true today; the en-US usage meaning "maize" is increasingly the meaning (at least without context suggesting the "locally common cereal crop" to paraphrase my dictionary). I assume this is both the availability of sweetcorn and popcorn in addition to the usual cultural invasion factor. – Richard Jan 3 '13 at 13:10
youtube.com/watch?v=gXSaI2c0vQY – Chris S Jan 3 '13 at 20:24
Alternate title: 'Why does "corn" mean "grain" in British English?' In BrE, what is the hypernym for wheat barley, rye? Is it 'grain' or 'corn' and if both which one is more common? Also, what do they say in Australia? – Mitch Jan 4 '13 at 1:35
@Mitch - that wouldn't be an interesting title. "corn" has meant "grain" in British English since before there was any other kind of English to compare it to. OED has attestations back as far as 888, whereas its earliest attestation of the US meaning is 1697. The US diverged in meaning, so there is a valid question as to why. British usage has remained virtually constant, so there is no interesting question to answer. – Jules Jan 25 '14 at 20:58
up vote 42 down vote accepted

When the English settlers landed in the New World, they didn't have a word for maize. Maize is a New World crop which was unknown in Europe. The word "maize" was originally Spanish, and comes from the word "mahiz" in the Arawak language of Haiti, and in the early 1600s it was not yet a common word in England. The settlers called it "Indian corn", which soon got shortened to just "corn".

EDIT: In the comments, some people are questioning whether "Indian corn" and "maize" refer to the same thing. They certainly don't today; in the U.S. Indian corn usually means ears of maize with multicolored kernels which are grown primarily for decoration. However, both terms were used and appear to have been treated as synonyms in the U.S. during and before the 18th century. From a section of An Universal History (London, 1763) discussing New England:

We have already observed that the country is fruitful in all kinds of esculent plants, pulse, and corn; but Indian corn, or maiz, which the natives call Weachin, is the most cultivated, and was alone known here on the first arrival of the Europeans. The following is the account of it communicated to the royal society by Mr. Winstrop ... "The ear is a span long, composed of eight or more rows of grain, according to the quality of the soil, and about thirty grains in each row, so that each ear at a medium produces about two hundred and forty grains, which is an astonishing increase. It is of various colours, red, white, yellow, black, green, &c, and the diversity frequently appears not only in the same field, but in the very same ear of corn, though yellow and white be the most common. ... It is observable, that the maize dwindles the farther you advance to the northward ... sufficiently evince the Indian corn to be a native of the more southern latitudes ... "

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Wikipedia suggests that Indian Corn or Flint Corn is a different variety to Maize. – spiceyokooko Jan 3 '13 at 18:57
@spiceyokooko: mahiz was the word for maize in an Indian language used in the Caribbean, where Columbus landed. I would be very surprised if this was at all similar to the word for maize in Indian languages in either Virginia or Massachusetts, where the early settlers arrived. I distrust any website that says "the native American name for" something, as there were many more native American languages than there are European ones. – Peter Shor Jan 3 '13 at 19:11
@spiceyokooko: Here is a document that shows the use of "Indian corn" in 1729 on the island of Nevis, a British colony in the Caribbean. – Peter Shor Jan 3 '13 at 19:22
And here is a reference that says that maize was called ewachim by the Indians in Massachusetts. Searching this book, it appears that both maize and Indian corn were used in the colonies. I would expect that the word maize was brought over from England somewhat later, after the word Indian corn was already established, but I have no evidence for this. – Peter Shor Jan 3 '13 at 19:27
Indian corn is modern "maize" (that is, what Americans think of as corn from the grocery) minus decades of genetic engineering (including deliberate breeding as well as newer-fangled methods). It's generally seen in stores only around Thanksgiving and is principally decorative, as all that husbandry has produced a much sweeter and more tender vegetable. However, even the particolored corn differs from the original, which was smaller, because of pre-Columbian agriculture. seedsofchange.com/enewsletter/issue_43/corn.aspx – Andrew Lazarus Jan 3 '13 at 21:39

Corn as a synonym for maize or any other grain depends on the region you look at. I once heard as explanation for this, that people tend to name the most common crop corn.

So in regions with a dominant maize production corn refers to maize. In regions with a dominant grain production corn typically means grain.

In my region, when people speak of corn, they mean rye. So I definitely think the reason is historical.

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Corn and grain both come from the same PIE root *ɡṛə-no- In English corn Grimm's Law has applied, and the original /ɡ/ (which appears in Latin grānum, whence Eng grain) has changed to /k/. Other English cognates include kernel, granite, grange, grenade, pomegranate, garnet, and granule. – John Lawler Jan 3 '13 at 14:46
In which region is "corn" synonymous with "rye"? – Anderson Green Jan 3 '13 at 22:27
In Austria. I am no native English speaker, but the use of the word corn (or Korn, in German) as a synonym for some kind of grain is the same there. I personally don't use it, but my father - a retired farmer - virtually never uses the word rye, because that's corn to him. – Dohn Joe Jan 4 '13 at 7:22

Corn is a generic term for grain.

From OED – 

corn, n.1

Etymology: Common Germanic: Old English corn corresponds to Old Frisian korn (East Frisian kôrn, kôren)

I. gen. A grain, a seed.

Whereas maize is a particular type of grain.

From OED –

maize, n. (and adj.)

Etymology: < Spanish †mahiz (now maíz ; first attested 1500 in Columbus's diary, although slightly earlier in post-classical Latin as maizium )

a. A cereal grass of Central American origin, Zea mays, having a terminal male inflorescence (the tassel) and axillary female flowers that form starchy grains (caryopses) embedded in rows in a central core (the cob);

So in regions where maize is the predominant grain people will use corn as the terminology to describe it.

Corn on the cob, is simply grains on the cob of maize, but corn has become synonymous with maize.

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Not sure how this answers the question "why". Are you saying that maize is the predominant grain in the US? – LarsH Feb 13 '13 at 17:47

The Taino people of the Caribbean islands called corn (what we now call corn), "mahiz." The Spanish became the dominant culture on these islands, but took up the word "mahiz" which became "maize." (According to Wikipedia, as the first language encountered by Europeans in the New world, Taino became a source of many new words for the Europeans.) The Spanish took the word and applied it to the corn that they found growing in Mexico and Central America.

Columbus and other Spanish explorers brought this plant back to Spain. Then it was planted in France, where it is now called maïs. But its old Occitan name (in southern France) is "lou blaou d'Espagne" or "blé d'Espagne"(in French), which translates to "the wheat of Spain."

Later, English colonists found this odd grain grown by the indigenous people of the northeastern part of America, and applied their word "corn." Hence, we have two different roots for the two words, corn and maize.

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protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:23

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