In "The Wealth Of Nations", Adam Smith discusses the price of corn in ancient times. Apparently, books such as "Chronicon Preciosum: or An Account of English Money, the Price of Corn and Other Commodities, for the Last 600 Years" (written in 1707) document the price of corn. This would seem to indicate that Europeans were eating corn since at least 1107.

However, I "learned" in school that it was Columbus who brought corn to Europe after 1492.

When Adam Smith discusses "corn", is he referring to some other vegetable food which differs from "corn on the cob"? Or, did the Europeans in fact have corn before the time of Columbus?

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    It's linguistic difference. In British English, 'corn' is wheat (or sometimes any grain). What we in the US call corn is called 'maize' in Britain.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 14, 2017 at 19:20
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    You should put that as an answer along with a cite.
    – Robert Columbia
    Jan 14, 2017 at 19:24
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    Upvoting because of "learned".
    – kubanczyk
    Jan 15, 2017 at 9:05
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    In Caesar's books he constantly refers to harvesting corn or transporting corn for his troops. Obviously maize did not exist in those times. Corn for him was a generic term representing grain crops.
    – ed.hank
    Jan 16, 2017 at 16:15

4 Answers 4


The word corn, Wiktionary tells us, can mean:

  1. (Britain) The main cereal plant grown for its grain in a given region, such as oats in parts of Scotland and Ireland, and wheat or barley in England and Wales.
  2. (US, Canada, Australia) Maize, a grain crop of the species Zea mays.
  3. A grain or seed, especially of a cereal crop.
  4. A small, hard particle.

The word comes through Proto-Germanic from a Proto-IndoEuropean root from which the Latin granum also is derived; the latter gave us the English grain (etymonline). (Maize comes through Spanish from the Taíno word for Zea mays.)

So when the British Colonies in America were settled, corn meant essentially "cereal grain". The settlers found the natives growing Zea mays and called it "Indian corn" (Dictionary of Americanisms). Since it became a major crop of the settlers too, and they already had names for their familiar corns (wheat, rye, oats), the name "Indian corn" was soon shortened in America to simply "corn".

Whether Columbus's voyages returned with maize seed is unclear, but it was soon introduced to the Old World, being one element of the Columbian Exchange, the great transfer of organisms and ideas between the hemispheres which followed the establishment of European travel across the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus was aware of the Taíno cultivation of Zea mays, as there is a description of it from his second voyage in 1494:

It is a grain of very high yield, of the size of the lupine, of the roundness of the chick-pea, and yields a meal ground to a very fine powder; it is ground as is wheat and yields a bread of very good taste. (Histories of Maize)

Adam Smith's reference to corn in ancient times was certainly a reference to cereal grains, perhaps specifically to wheat, but that is not clear.

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    Just a note: the term "Indian corn" is still used in the US to describe varieties that have multi-colored kernels rather than the standard yellow. (Or the horrible white stuff they sell these days...) It's usually more for decoration than food.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:44

In her book, Rome on the Euphrates, published in the 1960s, historian Freya Stark makes several references to corn in the Middle East and in southern Russia in the classical period of the late republic. However, she included no illustrations. I assumed she was referring to other grains, not the corn referred to usually in modern America, (and definitely not to anyone´s sense of humor!)


Thomas Jefferson's published letters refer to corn and maize being grown simultaneously in France in the 1780's.

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    Can you expand on this answer and provide a link or two? We prefer answers which aren't just one or two sentences. Sep 30, 2019 at 14:21

The explanations given are very good, however, there are history events, such as the Vikings who invaded England, also sailed to the northern regions of the American continent, and they could have taken the corn (Maize) to England.

Also there is a church in Scotland (Edinburg), built by the Saintclaires of Rosslyn, in the 1446, 46 years before the discovery of America. In this church there are build into its construction, curved figures of corn plants with corn cobs. So, were the English eating corn or maize, the american maize before 1492?

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    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Your claim should at a minimum be accompanied by photographs and providence of construction prior to importation of maize from the Americas. It is then necessary to properly refute the well understood etymology of the English word corn. Without any of that, this is completely unsubstantiated opinion. Aug 3, 2018 at 16:02
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    Note:. New user, low rep. Let us extend courtesy while new users learn our culture. Welcome to the site.
    – MCW
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:06
  • en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosslyn_Chapel contains a brief description of the allegations about maize carvings in Roslyn chapel, Edinburgh that predate Columbus and has an image of the carvings.
    – PhillS
    Aug 3, 2018 at 20:10

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