"brilliant crimson dyestuff consisting of the dried bodies of a species of insect," 1580s, from French cochenille (16c.), probably from Spanish cochinilla, from a diminutive of Latin coccinus (adj.) "scarlet-colored," from coccum "berry (actually an insect) yielding scarlet dye" (see kermes). But some sources identify the Spanish source word as cochinilla "wood louse" (a diminutive form related to French cochon "pig").
The insect (Coccus Cacti) was so called from 1590s. It lives on the prickly pear cactus in Mexico and Central America and is a relative of the kermes and has similar, but more intense, dying qualities. Aztecs and other Mexican Indians used it as a dyestuff. It first is mentioned in Europe in 1523 in Spanish correspondence to Hernán Cortés in Mexico. Specimens were brought to Spain in the 1520s, and cloth merchants in Antwerp were buying cochineal in insect and powdered form in Spain by the 1540s. It soon superseded the use of kermes as a tinctorial substance. Other species of coccus are useless for dye and considered mere pests, such as the common mealy bug.
updated on January 06, 2018
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