The previous posting about hippocracy mentioned that Greek hippos meant ‘horse.’ English hippo is an informal shortening of hippopotamus, a Latin word that Spanish has carried over as hipopótamo. The Romans borrowed their compound word from Greek, where the second element meant ‘rushing water, river.’ As a result, a hipopótamo/hippopotamus is figuratively ‘a river horse.’ People don’t race hippos but they do race horses, and a hipódromo/hippodrome is, particularly with reference to Greek and Roman times, ‘a racetrack for horses.’ The word can also mean ‘an arena for equestrian performances,’ and even more generally ‘a performance hall.’ From 1905 to 1939 the New York Hippodrome was a famous theater; it was there in 1918 that the magician Harry Houdini made not a hippo but an elephant disappear from the stage in front of an astonished audience.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Ah, spelling! Four years ago years ago I came across hippocracy, an obvious misspelling for hypocrisy. Curious, I did an Internet search at the time for hippocracy and turned up over 8,000 hits. I tried the search again recently and got 17,900 hits. Not surprisingly, a fair number were examples of the same mistake. In a different vein, one writer asked “What is hippocracy?” Answering his own question, he went on to say “It is a type of government where hippos run the country.” Another writer, more aware of etymology, explained that hippocracy would mean ‘rule by horses,’ with the first element coming from Greek hippos ‘horse’ and the second from -kratia ‘power, might, authority.’ We recognize that second component in various compounds, including:

Democracia/democracy ‘rule by the people.’

Teocracia/theocracy ‘rule by God [or people claiming to rule according to God’s principles].’

Plutocracia/plutocracy ‘rule by the wealthy.’

Autocracia/autocracy ‘rule by one person.’

Perhaps the one that affects modern life the most is burocracia/bureaucracy, which causes us to be caught up in offices and the paperwork emanating from them. In contrast to rule by burócratas/bureaucrats, who are often incompetent, is meritocracia/meritocracy ‘rule by people of merit and ability.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


So who will you believe: me or your lying eyes? That sarcastic line or some variant of it has become popular in recent years, and today it seems an apt way to begin a follow-up to the previous post about Spanish azor. English translates the word as ‘goshawk,’ etymologically a goose-hawk, even if the bird also preys on many animals smaller than a goose.

The word hawk is native English, having developed its modern form as a gradual simplification of Old English hafoc. It’s only coincidental that a hawk can create havoc among the birds it preys on, but an f sound is pretty similar to a v sound, lacking primarily its voicing. Replace the f in Old English hafoc with the similar v, and you begin to see the resemblance of hafoc to the verb have, which is in fact a native English relative. How nicely that accords with Spanish azor, which the previous post pointed out developed from Vulgar Latin *acceptor. To accept something, after all, is then to have it. But the relationship is even more striking. Vulgar Latin *acceptor was based on the Latin verb capere that meant ‘to seize, take, grasp,’ and that verb had descended from the same Indo-European root that led to English hawk; it was *kap-, which meant ‘to grasp,’ so hawk and azor were similarly conceived as a description of a bird that seizes prey.

And what about the “believe me or your lying eyes” opening of today’s column? Well, although Indo-European *kap- did produce English have, it did not produce the Latin verb for ‘to have,’ habere, which is the source of Spanish haber. That’s right, in spite of the strong similarity in form and meaning between English have and Spanish haber, etymologically the two verbs are completely unrelated! As much as you may long for them to be connected and feel in the core of your being that they’re connected, their resemblance is just a coincidence. It’s a truth you’ll have to come to grips with.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Azor and Azores

Spanish and English use the plural Azores as the name of a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean some 900 miles west of the coast of Portugal, which the islands are a part of. (The Portuguese call them the Açores). Not as well known as the Azores, especially to English speakers, is the lower-case Spanish word azores, also a plural, whose singular is azor. An azor is a type of bird that English calls a goshawk, which is to say ‘a goose hawk, a hawk that preys on geese.’ The Spanish name evolved from Vulgar Latin *acceptor, which we’re likely to misinterpret as ‘someone or something that accepts.’ Like our verb aceptar/accept, Vulgar Latin *acceptor developed from the past participle of Latin capere, which had the stronger senses ‘to take, grab, seize.’ As a result, Spanish azor, like *acceptor and its standard Latin predecessor accipiter, was conceived as the name of a particular type of bird that seizes its prey. (Using another Latin word, Spanish and English call that kind of bird a raptor).

From azor Spanish made the verb azorar, which with reference to an azor and its prey means ‘to frighten, disturb, pursue.’ The verb can also mean ‘to urge on [an animal]’ and, extending its scope to people, ‘to ruffle, fluster, embarrass, irritate.’ The corresponding noun is azoramiento, whose senses include ‘alarm, embarrassment, excitement.’

The Catalan linguist Joan Corominas pointed out that Vulgar Latin *acceptor led not only to Spanish azor but also to Old Spanish acetor, from which came acetorero ‘a person who raises and trains birds of prey.’ With the loss of its o, that word became acetrero, which has been further shortened to cetrero. A cetrero is ‘a falconer, a person who uses a bird of prey for hunting.’

Robert Frost ended a well-known poem with the line “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I’ll end this entry with a thought I trust you won’t find startling, that one could do worse than be an azor de palabras.


UPDATE. The second commenter on this article mentioned that a bird appears on the flag of the Azores, something I hadn’t known. In looking up that flag, I found a Wikipedia article which states that the early Portuguese settlers were confused in their identification, and that the bird they saw on the islands wasn’t a goshawk but a type of buzzard—which presumably looked like a goshawk. Such misidentifications are common, as in central Texas, where I live, and where the Ashe juniper trees are erroneously called cedars.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Why, you ask, would anyone now alive want to read the January 1918 issue of the journal Railway Signal Engineer? One answer is that, wedged between an article titled “Maintaining an Interlocking Plant at High Tide” and another called “Handling Lead Sheath Underground Cables” is one that bears the title “Further Confessions of an Ex-Maintainer” and the subtitle “In Which We Learn Something of the History Surrounding the Early Development of Panama and Adjacent Country.” Unlike the two pieces surrounding it and almost all the others in the journal, this one was not technical or serious; it was a humorous retelling of the early Spanish development of Panama. The article gives a modern reader an idea of what passed for humor in the United States almost a century ago, complete with some occasional comments that are far from what is now politically correct.

As an example, take this passage from the unsigned article: “Characteristically, Balboa was a combination of eel, fox, weasel and bull dog. He was ingenious to the Nth power. [Who knew that the non-mathematical usage of that phrase went back so far?] When in a dry territory, he originated the idea of drinking grape juice, eating a yeast cake and sitting quiet until it fermented, in order to get an alcoholic kick. In other words, he was a good ward politician who happened to be dumped out here on earth 400 years ahead of his time. Everything in Haiti was too slow, so he sat around with his face in his lap and took five medals for being the prize pessimist of the island.”

The next paragraph contained today’s word: “About this time another anchor heaving captain by the name of Encisco was about to sail from Haiti for the Darien country. Balboa was about to be slammed into the Hoosegow for debt so he bribed a couple of dock wollopers to put him in an empty cask and smuggle him on board the ship.”

Spanish juzgar, which in Old Spanish had been judgar, means the same as its English cognate judge, so the past participle juzgado means literally ‘judged.’ Around the time of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, Spanish began using  juzgado as a noun. Meanings include ‘court, tribunal,’ and the fancy ‘judicature'; a juzgado can also be ‘a place where judging is carried out.’ In Spanish, a -d- between vowels is weakened and in some dialects disappears altogether, so that juzgado can come out sounding like juzgao. In the early 20th century, English speakers in the west of the United States, not having the sound of Spanish j, heard the Spanish word pronounced as if it began with English h. When they borrowed the word as a slang term for ‘a place where people are kept while waiting to be judged,’ which is to say ‘a jail,’ they Anglicized the spelling to the hoosegow that has been the standard form ever since

Although hoosegow is slang, Carl Sandburg used it twice in his poem “Aprons of Silence,” which appeared in 1920:

“I fixed up a padded cell and lugged it around.
I locked myself in and nobody knew it.
Only the keeper and the kept in the hoosegow
Knew it….

“Here I took along my own hoosegow
And did business with my own thoughts.”

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

An overwhelming gulf

The other day I came across the word overwhelming. To tell the truth, the passage I was reading came from the last century, and the word appeared in the hyphenated spelling over-whelming. I was reminded of the way that people have recently begun using the humorous opposite, underwhelm, but then I wondered whether whelm ever appears as word in its own right. I certainly don’t ever use it (do you?) but a quick search of some dictionaries said yes, whelm by itself is a real word. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the preceding Middle English whelmen probably arose from Old English -hwelfan (as found in āhwelfan ‘to cover over’) under the influence of the unrelated helmen ‘to cover.’

Some sources believe Old English -hwelfan was related to ancient Greek kolpos, which meant ‘bosom’ and ‘gulf.’ In fact Spanish golfo and English gulf trace back to the forms colpus and colfus in which Late Latin borrowed Greek kolpos. From golfo Spanish has made the verb engolfar, whose first definition the DRAE gives as ‘to put a boat into a gulf.’ Engolfar(se) can also indicate that a ship has gone far enough out into a body of water that people on land can’t see the vessel anymore. The 1913 Webster’s defines the parallel English form engulf as ‘To absorb or swallow up as in a gulf.’ Water isn’t required, as when a building is described as being engulfed by flames. Our own era seems to favor even more metaphorical uses: the online Collins Dictionary gives the example of being engulfed by debts, and at the online Oxford Dictionaries we find that “Europe might be engulfed by war.” Spanish engolfarse also has a metaphorical sense: ‘Meterse mucho en un negocio, dejarse llevar o arrebatar de un pensamiento o afecto.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


On my other blog a few days ago I showed a photograph of a shrub that grows in the southwestern part of the United States. Botanists know it as Ericameria nauseosa, but one of its vernacular names is chamisa. That appears to be a respelling, based on the pronunciation in New World Spanish of z as s, of chamiza. WordMagic defines the word as ‘hierba gramínea silvestre y medicinal que vive en humedales y pantanos, se emplea para cubrir los techos de las chozas. Various dictionaries translate the word into English as ‘brush[wood], thatch palm, thatch.’ Joan Corominas glosses the word as ‘chamarasca, leña menuda,’ and says it is attested as far back as 1601. As for etymology, Corominas says that Spanish took the term from Portuguese chamiça or Galician chamiza, both of which are based on chama, the cognate of Spanish llama as well as English flame*. The connection to fire makes sense, given that chamiza could be used as kindling and chamarasca means ‘a brisk fire made of brushwood.’

One of the peculiarities of early Spanish is that an initial Latin pl-, cl- and fl- often changed to ll, which was originally pronounced (and still is in Spain) [λ]. For example, Latin plenum became Spanish lleno, Latin clavem became Spanish llave, and in the case that concerns us, Latin flamma became Spanish llama**. Portuguese took the sound change even further, so that those three Latin words developed in Portuguese to cheio, chave, and chama, that last giving rise to Portuguese chamiça and Galician chamiza. Another related word that Spanish took from Portuguese is chamuscar, which means ‘to sear, char, scorch, singe.’


* The American Heritage Dictionary explains that English flame came from Anglo-Norman flaumbe, variant of Old French flambe, from flamble, from Latin flammula, diminutive of flamma.

** Although it’s possible for the type of llama that roams parts of South America to catch fire, the zoological llama is an unrelated word that comes from Quechua.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Most English speakers recognize vamp as a short form of vampire, a word that English borrowed from French. Spanish did likewise, changing it only slightly to vampiro. It turns out that French adopted the term from German Vampir, which had come from Slavic.

Many fewer English speakers know that there’s another and unrelated vamp that is, in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘the upper part of a boot or shoe covering the instep and sometimes extending over the toe.’ From the noun comes the original sense of the verb vamp: ‘to provide (a shoe) with a new vamp.’ Derivative senses of the verb are ‘to refurbish’ and ‘to put together; fabricate or improvise.’ Revamp is probably more familiar than the basic verb that the compound is based on.

Vamp is opaque, meaning that sound changes have obscured its origin. In fact this short and pithy noun is etymologically a compound, and as consonant-heavy as the current form is, the word doesn’t come from old English or a Germanic language. No, Middle English took vamp—originally in the sense ‘sock’—from Old French avanpie. The first element in that compound was avaunt (modern French avant), which meant ‘in front of’ and was itself a compound that developed from Latin ab ‘off, away from,’ and ante ‘before.’ Spanish, of course, still has ante- as a prefix and antes as a freestanding word. English similarly uses ante- as a prefix, and in a card game an ante is ‘an amount of money that a player has to put in before play can continue.’ The corresponding verb is to ante up.

The second element in Old French avanpie is clear to a Spanish speaker, for whom pie is still the word for ‘foot.’ In fact native English foot is a cognate.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


The previous post’s discussion of botón/button seems to call for a follow-up posting about ojal, the Spanish word for ‘the opening in an article of clothing that a button passes through.’ English calls it straightforwardly a buttonhole, but the Spanish imagination sees that hole differently, given that ojal was created from ojo, the familiar Spanish word corresponding to its native English relative eye. Actually English can use the same metaphor, as in speaking of the eye of a needle or of the type of fastening called a hook and eye. In addition, English uses the diminutive eyelet for ‘a small round hole in leather or cloth for threading a lace, string, or rope through,’ as well as ‘a metal ring used to reinforce such a hole.’

© 201r Steven Schwartzman

Button, button, who’s got the button?

The English verb butt, as when people butt heads or butt into a conversation, is, if not short and sweet, at least short. Such pithy, direct English words are often native, but butt entered the language from Old French bouter ‘to strike, thrust.’ If that sounds like Spanish botar—which can mean ‘to throw, throw away, cast, bounce, bound, knock over’—it’s because Old French bouter and Spanish botar were both borrowed from a word of Germanic origin.

From the verb bouter Old French created the noun boton, literally ‘something that thrusts forward.’ That has passed into English as button and into Spanish as botón, which now has additional meanings that include ‘knob, handle’ and ‘sprout, bud.’ In recent years Spanish has adopted botón de(l) ratón as a translation of the English computer term mouse button.

For more on the title of today’s post, you can check out a Wikipedia article.

© 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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