"human that eats human flesh," 1550s, from Spanish canibal, caribal "a savage, cannibal," from Caniba, Christopher Columbus' rendition of the Caribs' name for themselves (often given in modern transliterations as kalino or karina; see Carib, and compare Caliban).

The natives were believed by the Europeans to be anthropophagites. Columbus, seeking evidence that he was in Asia, thought the name meant the natives were subjects of the Great Khan. The form was reinforced by later writers who connected it to Latin canis "dog," in reference to their supposed voracity, a coincidence which "naturally tickled the etymological fancy of the 16th c." [OED]. The Spanish word had reached French by 1515. Used of animals from 1796. An Old English word for "cannibal" was selfæta.

(Retrieved from source)

The native languages of the region had various forms beginning with kal-, kar-, or kan-, depending on language. We retain a kar- form in our words Carib and Caribbean. But the (Spanish) word for cannibal chose a kan- form, and this choice was strengthened (it became the dominant choice) by association with the (unrelated) Latin word that has -n-. The Latin word reinforced the choice of the sound kan- rather than the other forms, so now Spanish and English use the can- form, not a car- form as in Carib.

Am I right in thinking that "a coincidence" means that both the Spanish word "canibal" and the Latin word "canis" have can-.

  • Your source says that it is a coincidence. There is no reason to suppose any etymological connection between Latin and the pre-Columbian languages of the West Indies. So is there any reason to suppose it is not a coincidence? What evidence would you accept that is more authoritative than the OED?
    – James K
    Jul 29, 2021 at 22:38
  • Also are you asking about the Spanish word, not the related English word? If so you should ask on Spanish Language
    – James K
    Jul 29, 2021 at 22:41
  • @James K: I'd like to know what exactly "a coincidence" means in that context. Jul 29, 2021 at 22:58

1 Answer 1


A coincidence is when two things look like they might have a connection, but actually they do not.

The Spanish word canibal and the Latin word canis both start with cani-. That is a true fact. It is also a coincidence because in actuality the words have nothing to do with each other in meaning or in etymology.

If the words were related, it would still be a true fact that they share the same root, and that would not be a coincidence.

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