English took the word nuance, which means ‘a slight shade of difference,’ directly from French. Old French had created that noun from the verb nuer ‘to shade, to cloud,’ based in turn on the noun nue ‘cloud’ (source of the more-common French word for ‘cloud,’ nuage). Old French nue was a direct descendant of the *nūba that Vulgar Latin had made from the classical Latin word for ‘cloud,’ nūbēs, the ancestor of Spanish nube. From nube Spanish has created the following words:

nuboso ‘cloudy, covered with clouds’

nublar (or anublar) ‘to cloud over, to become cloudy’

nubada ‘a shower, a downpour,’ and figuratively ‘an abundance’

nubarrada, a synonym of nubada; as an adjective, nubarrado can describe cloth that is ‘dyed or colored like clouds.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


We remember when the second apparition spoke to Macbeth:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man; for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

We also remember the recent post about how Spanish nada ‘nothing’ developed from the Latin construction non … res nata ‘not … a born thing,’ so it’s hardly surprising to learn that Latin had the similar phrase homines nati ‘people [who have been] born.’ Macbeth’s eventual nemesis aside, that’s ‘everyone,’ and when the Latin phrase occurred in negative constructions it took on the opposite sense, i.e. ‘no one.’ Eventually homines dropped out and nati came to stand for the whole negative expression. As nata had evolved in Old Spanish to nada, so nati eventually became nadi. Then, according to Joan Corominas, because of the influence of forms of haber in compound tenses, a construction like nadi ha venido got converted to naid ha venido. Later naid became naide, and the modern form nadie is finally attested in 1495.

©2014 Steven Schwartzman

Display and desplegar

English display and Spanish desplegar are cognates, but we can more easily understand the etymology of the Spanish verb. It comes from Medieval Latin displicāre, which changed the meaning of the classical Latin verb displicāreto scatter,a compound of dis- ‘apart’ and plicāre ‘to fold.’ The Medieval sense of displicāre, and hence desplegar, was ‘to unfold.’ English display has nothing to do with play, of course, but comes via Anglo-Norman despleier from the same Medieval Spanish displicāre that gave rise to desplegar. The modern Spanish verb has various senses: ‘to unfold, spread, open, display, expand, unfurl’ and, in a military sense, ‘to deploy.’ If English deploy looks suspiciously like display, it’s not a coincidence. Deploy goes back to Old French despleier, which evolved directly from classical Latin displicāre. As a result, English deploy and display are doublets, with the first coming from mainstream French and the second from Anglo-Norman.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


People often assume, plausibly enough, that because Spanish nada ‘nothing’ is a negative and begins with an n-, it is derived from or related to the word no. But plausibility isn’t necessarily reality, and this turns out to be another case of “No todo lo que brilla es oro. / Not all that glitters is gold.” Surprisingly, nada traces back to Latin nata ‘born,’ a feminine past participle of the verb that has become Spanish nacer ‘to be born.’ The Latin construction non… res nata meant ‘not… a born thing,’ in other words ‘nothing.’ Notice how similar that is to the English idiom not in all my born days, which is a way of saying ‘never.’ Eventually the res got dropped, as did the non, but not before imparting its negativity to the nata; the resulting Spanish nada thus became a negative in its own right. From nada Spanish has made nadería ‘a little nothing, something insignificant, a trifle.’ Colloquial English has begun using nada as a lighthearted synonym of native English nothing, which, in contrast to the Spanish, transparently reveals its origin as no + thing.

©2014 Steven Schwartzman


When I worked in black and white photography in the 1970s, I sometimes put a print into a sepia bath to tone it brown, a practice that originated in the 19th century and was common then. Only recently did I learn the etymology of the word sepia: Middle English took it from Latin sēpia and at first retained the original meaning of ‘cuttlefish.’ That sense has disappeared, replaced by the current one of ‘a dark brown ink’ or ‘the color of that ink,’ the connection being that people used to prepare ink of that color from the secretion of a cuttlefish.

Spanish sepia means the same as its English counterpart but can also still mean ‘cuttlefish.’ In addition, Spanish has created the doublet jibia, which designates the animal only (or specifically its shell) but doesn’t refer to sepia ink or its color.

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that Latin had taken sēpia from Greek sēpiā ‘cuttlefish,’ a word that may have been related to the verb sēpein ‘to make rotten.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

oregano and pizza

Growing up in New York, I (and maybe most people there) associated oregano with pizza. In fact oregano was the pizza seasoning par excellence, a taste of Old Italy—or so I thought. Imagine my decades-belated surprise, then, when I learned that English took oregano not from Italian but from Spanish. Spanish got orégano from Latin orīganum, which the Romans had borrowed from Greek orīganon.

With pizza, which Spanish and English have borrowed intact, we’re in for a second surprise: that seemingly most Italian of words actually has a Germanic origin. According to the 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, the Italian word whose senses were ‘pie, tart’ and ultimately ‘pizza’ is akin to Old High German bizzo and pizzo, which meant ‘bite, morsel.’ It’s easy to see the resemblance of the German forms to their native English cognate bit, which, coming as it does from the verb bite, is etymologically ‘a little piece bitten off.’

©2014 Steven Schwartzman


In my other blog I recently showed a close-up photograph of a cricket, and a commenter said that I should have added some etymology to the entomology by bringing in the word stridulation, which Spanish shares in the expected form estridulación. The latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary gives two definitions:

1. Characterized by or making a shrill grating sound or noise.
2. Relating to or characterized by stridor.

 That second definition makes us aware that there’s a related noun stridor, which also has a two-part English definition:

1. A harsh, shrill, grating, or creaking sound.
2. Medicine  A harsh, high-pitched sound in inhalation or exhalation.

The DRAE defines the Spanish counterpart estridor as ‘Sonido agudo, desapacible y chirriante,’ which is about the same as the English definition.

Both forms of the noun go back to Latin strīdēre, an imitative verb that meant ‘to make harsh sounds.’ From that verb Latin created the adjective strīdulus, which we’ve borrowed as estriduloso/stridulous, and which is the basis for the modern verb estridular/stridulate and the noun that we began with, estridulación/stridulation.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

The hidden one in once and eleven

In my other blog recently I showed a photograph that included an eleven-spotted cucumber beetle, an insect to which entomologists have given the species name undecimpunctata. The -punct- is from Latin punctum ‘point, spot, dot,’ the ancestor of Spanish punto and (through French) English point. Latin undecim was a still-transparent combination of unus ‘one’ and decim (or decem) ‘ten.’ As Latin evolved into Spanish, undecim became once, which is phonetically simpler but no longer transparent.

The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the Old English word that gave rise to the modern eleven was endleofan, a compound that had developed from Germanic *ain- ‘one’ and *lif- ‘to remain.’ In other word (and to the delight of arithmetic teachers), eleven is the number such that after you subtract our numerical base of ten, one remains.

In looking back at the title of today’s post, I realized that once is ambiguous: I intended it to be the Spanish once, but English also has an identically spelled (even if differently pronounced) once. The English word used to be spelled ones, a possessive form (before an apostrophe came into use to mark such a form) that we can interpret as ‘of one [time].’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Neither George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, nor James Monroe—the first five presidents of the United States—ever had his photograph taken or ever heard of a dinosaur. That’s because photography wasn’t made practical till after 1839, and only in around 1841 did Richard Owen coin the term dinosaurus, which Spanish has turned into dinosaurio and English into dinosaur. Although Owen’s dinosaurus has a Latin ending, he created the compound from the Greek elements deinos ‘monstrous’ and sauros ‘lizard.’ We see -saur- in other dinosaur-related words like saurópodo/sauropod, brontosaurio/brontosaur(us), and apatosauro/apatosaur(us).

One other connection is that ancient Greek deinos was related to Latin dīrus, which meant ‘fearful, awful.’ English has borrowed the Latin adjective as dire. Just as a dinosaur is an extinct ‘fearsome lizard,’ a dire wolf is an extinct ‘fearsome wolf.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

More offshoots of Latin siccus

The previous post dealt with desecar/desiccate and some other descendants of the Latin adjective siccus, which meant ‘dry’ and which is the ancestor of the synonymous Spanish seco. The French cognate is sec, which English has borrowed to indicate a ‘dry’ wine, especially with reference to champagne.’ In standard French the feminine form of sec is sèche, but the dialectal form seiche also exists; as a noun, it designates ‘an exposed [and therefore dry] portion of a lake bottom.’ The earth sciences have adopted seiche as a name for, in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘a wave that oscillates in lakes, bays, or gulfs from a few minutes to a few hours as a result of seismic or atmospheric disturbances.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2014 Steven Schwartzman

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