The crisps[BrEn]/chips[AmEn] that are made of corn (and probably not deep-fried) are called tortilla:

Mustard yellow, 400g bag of tortilla chips. There is a see through window in the bag, so the chips are visible.

The wraps with that special taste, are called tortila:

A stack of tortilla pancakes, two are leaning against the left hand side, as if they slipped off.

And then, the omelet-like meal is called tortilla!

Tortilla omlette on a circular wooden board with a slice resting on a cake slice. A metal fork is resting on top of the omlette.

I can understand that the first usage is probably derived from the second, since I saw something saying that frying the wraps, you can make the chips; but the third usage is not related to these two at all.

What's the commonality among these three that has made the English use the same word for all of them? Or is it just a random confusion/carelessness after borrowing the edible + the name from Mexican and Spanish in different periods of time?

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    In American English, the topmost item is usually known as a tortilla chip. What I can decipher of the text on the packaging in your photo is actually French, which (on this evidence) appears to prefer a slightly different term compared with English. – Erik Kowal Aug 14 '14 at 10:10
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    The omelets are called tortillas in Spain, and the flat corn or wheat wraps are called tortillas in Mexico. The British just borrowed both words from Spanish, rather than calling one a Spanish omelet the way we do in the U.S. – Peter Shor Aug 14 '14 at 11:26
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    It's the British who confuse things. Americans call these tortilla chips, tortillas, and Spanish omelets. – Peter Shor Aug 14 '14 at 11:30
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    Presumably, there were Spanish restaurants in England serving tortillas before Mexican restaurants started appearing. When you have Mexican restaurants opening, are the Mexicans going to start calling tortillas, a staple of their cuisine, something different? – Peter Shor Aug 14 '14 at 11:37
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    @PeterShor Well. . . . here in what was once part of the Vice Royalty of New Spain, we actually do call them tortillas españolas even in English, but your mileage may vary. – tchrist Aug 14 '14 at 12:25

I think on one level it's fairly simple: because the Spanish word for all three is the same, too. The Diccionario de la lengua española gives the omelette sense first, with no particular localisation (although it is often called tortilla española and originates from Spain); then the wrap sense, which is localised to Central America, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Tortilla chips (as they are usually called even in British English, in my experience) are just fried corn tortilla wraps, as you say.

The DRAE doesn't give etymologies, but tortilla is diminutive of torta, which generally refers to a round flatbread but also has various other local meanings. It seems that roundness and flat(ish)ness may be all that they have in common.

Getting back to English, I would say that following @Peter Shor's comment, most Brits would also call these tortilla chips, tortillas (or tortilla wraps) and Spanish omelettes, respectively.

  • I expect that tortilla española is unlikely in the U.K., as that's the Mexican name for the dish that is called a tortilla in Spain. – Peter Shor Aug 15 '14 at 18:24
  • @PeterShor It really is not a “Mexican” term. It is true that in Spain they normally just called the omelette una tortilla, like when you order una ración de tortilla or un bocata de tortilla, when necessary Spaniards are perfectly content with opposing tortilla francesa to tortilla española. – tchrist Aug 15 '14 at 18:34
  • Yes, for clarity, I was not suggesting that British English speakers would say tortilla española, just that Spaniards use it to be unambiguous – Jon Clayden Aug 15 '14 at 18:36

In Spanish, the suffixs "illo, illa, ito or ita" mean "small". The word TORTA in Spanish comes from old latin meaning a round bread, cake or pie (sweet or savory), so omeletes are also considered tortas o tortillas. When the Spanish established themselves in America (1500) they called the flat bread "small torta"=tortilla. In Spanish, ALL OVER, tortilla does not mean only the Amerindian flat bread. An egg omelette is called Tortilla de huevos, a spinach omelette is Tortilla de espinaca; a rice cake is Tortita de arroz, etc. Look at these videos from a Mexican cook and a Peruvian cook, two very different countries: Mexico, egg omelette: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNdm2xdhk9w


Enjoy! And now you know that torta, tortilla is NOT only the Amerindian flat bread.


Mine is a distinctly provincial response since I have never traveled to continental Europe. However, I have spent much of my life in the southwest United States. I have never seen the omelet you have pictured for the third usage called a 'tortilla' in the USA. I found it strange to see it so called in your example. A tortilla (at least in my humble experience) is a flat savory bread made with wheat or corn flour and used for myriad dishes including being cut into triangles and fried or baked to make 'chips.'

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    Welcome to EL&U. This is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and your response does not appear to answer the question asked, which is why the term is used in British English. I encourage you to visit the help center for additional guidance. – choster Aug 14 '14 at 22:58

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