The origins of corn

Okay, this isn’t your typical question. I know that corn aka maize comes from the Americas, and hence wasn’t known in Europe until after Columbus made his mathematically-challenged trek across the Atlantic.

So how come the Greeks and Romans keep talking about corn? I just reread through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and all the way through it you’ve got talk about corn. Goddesses of the corn. Cornucopia. Corn as the staff of life.

I see two possibilities. Either the distinguished Edith Hamilton was a lousy translator (which doesn’t explain cornucopia), or the ancient story tellers were actually talking about something else.

Which is it? And what grain were they actually talking about?

Wheat. At least I think. Wheat was (and still may be) called corn in the British Isles.

Cornucopia on the other hand doesn’t refer to corn the vegetable but to the Latin word corn meaning horn, as in Unicorn.

“Cornucopia” means “horn of plenty”, not “plenty of maize”. I don’t know about the other corn things, but I suspect bad translation.

Barbarian, this question used to keep me up at nights my own self. Corn, as it turns out is the word that is givien to the most common crop of an area. When a farmer in England says corn he means oats. When a farmer in the Americas says corn he means maize.

If you want to know, maize developed from a plant called teosinte which, back in the day, looked very similar to wheat. After years upon years of selective breeding, the grass kernels got bigger and bigger until it turned into the corn that we know and love (not the frankenfood stuff).

In England, corn refers to barley, wheat, and a half dozen other grains gathered from grasses. It is used in the United States to refer to Maize, probably because that was the indigenous variety of corn that the first English settlers saw.

Look ma, Injuns grow Corn!

So, by the time that European grains were fully established as social competition to maize, the habit of corn referring only to maize was well established.


Yes, what Americans today simply call “corn” was originally known as “Indian corn” to distinguish it from wheat, barley, oats etc. Originally, and still today in the U.K., “corn” was equivalent to “grain.” Other English speaking countries call it by its proper name, maize.

And corned beef is called such because of the “corns” of salt used to make it.

Corn (maize), wheat, barley, rye, oats, etc., are called small grains. I have no idea what large grains might be. In Europe all small grains are “corn.”

Cecil Adams on How could Romans use corn? It’s American!

Sheesh, a guy decides not to use the search engine, and poof. :wink:

Thanks for the responses all around (although I was already familiar with teosinte and the cornu- meaning horn. )

corn in the UK is called just that, and barley, wheat etc are also known as barley, wheat etc, not as corn as suggested by Triskadecamus.
Maize is grown as a fodder crop, and its relative known as sweet corn (corn on the cob) is grown for human consumption.


While this goes against what Skaill just said, I’ll side with him/her since, living in Scotland puts him/her in a much better position with regards to current common usage.