The curious name Mescal, which began popping up in the U.S. baby name data in the mid-1910s, saw its highest usage in the mid-1920s:
- 1926: 12 baby girls named Mescal
- 1925: 17 baby girls named Mescal
- 1924: 22 baby girls named Mescal (peak)
- 1923: 11 baby girls named Mescal
- 1922: 12 baby girls named Mescal
Where did the name come from, and what happened in 1924?
It all starts with the Zane Grey western The Heritage of the Desert (1910). The book’s main character was Jack Hare, and Jack’s love interest was a half-Navajo, half-Spanish woman named Mescal.
More than a decade after the book was published, a silent film based on the book was released. The Heritage of the Desert (1924) starred actor Lloyd Hughes as Jack and actress Bebe Daniels as Mescal.
(Interestingly, one baby born in Alabama in 1930 was named Mescal Bebe — a nod to both the character and the actress.)
According to the book, Mescal was named after a cactus flower by her grandfather, a Navajo chief. In fact, in one scene, Mescal took Jack to see the eponymous flower:
“Jack, this is mescal,” said the girl, pointing to some towering plants.
All over the sunny slopes cacti lifted slender shafts, unfolding in spiral leaves as they shot upward and bursting at the top into plumes of yellow flowers. The blossoming stalks waved in the wind, and black bees circled round them.
The problem with Zane Grey’s description, however, is that the word mescal — besides referring to a type of alcoholic drink made from agave — signifies the peyote cactus specifically. Peyotes are squat, round, and just a couple of inches tall — definitely neither “towering” nor “slender.”
The word mescal (also spelled mezcal) comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which is made up of the elements metl, meaning “maguey” (a type of agave) and ixca, meaning “to cook.”
Grey’s book was made into a movie twice more, in 1932 and 1939, but in both remakes the primary female character was given a more mainstream name (Judy in 1932, Miriam in 1939).
What are your thoughts on the name Mescal?
P.S. Tequila is another agave-based baby name…