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

Stevia, my stevia

For someone like me who uses stevia and whose name happens to be Steve (but whose mother always said Stevie), there’s an understandable urge to claim the plant is named for me. Turns out there’s some truth to that, because when I went to the American Heritage Dictionary and looked up the origin of the genus name Stevia, I found that it honors the botanist Petrus Jacobus Stevus, (c. 1500-1556), whose non-Latinized name was Pedro Jaime Esteve, and who was the first European to investigate the Stevia rebaudiana plants from which the sweetener is extracted. Although the dictionary described Esteve as Spanish, I recognized Esteve as the Catalan version of the name that Spanish renders Esteban and English Stephen or Steven. All those versions go back to ancient Greek stephanos, which designated a garland or crown of laurel. As for the plant with the oh-so-sweet leaves, Spanish calls it estevia, and you can read more about it in that language if you wish.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


During a recent visit to the blog of nature photographer Guy Tal I encountered a post entitled “Solastalgia.” The post began with a definition of that term by its creator, the Australian “environmental philosopher” Glenn Albrecht: “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”

Looking further, I found an article by Paul McFedries in Word Spy that explains the origin of the term. The first element is from Latin sōlācium, the source (via Provençal) of Spanish solaz and (via French) English solace. The Latin noun is from the same root as the verb sōlārī, a compound of which has given us consolar/console. The last element in solastalgia is the familiar -algia, from Greek algos, which meant ‘pain,’ and which we find in medical words like neuralgia and fibromialgia/fibromyalgia. We also find it in nostalgia, which incorporates Greek nostos ‘a return home'; therefore it’s apparently the already compound nostalgia that’s being combined with solas- to create solastalgia.

Readers who would like to learn more in English about solastalgia can read the article in Word Spy. There’s also a TEDxSydney talk by Glenn Albrecht at:


Readers who would like follow-ups in Spanish might check out the articles at the following links:



There’s also a Spanish-language interview with Glenn Albrecht, with his answers overdubbed in Spanish:



© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Reciting your prayers

The last post included the English words perfect and parfait. Those are dobletes/doublets, two words in a given language that can be traced back to the same source (in this case, Latin perfectum). The more contact a language has had with others, and the more it has borrowed from them, the greater the likelihood that it will end up with doublets. English and Spanish, both being world languages, each have hundreds of doublets.

Doublets can also form when a language turns not to its neighbors but to its own past. The starting point for a pair of Spanish doublets of that type is the Latin verb recitāre, which meant ‘to read aloud, to declaim.’ Through gradual changes in pronunciation during the centuries when Latin developed into the Romance languages, recitāre evolved to Spanish rezar, where the declaiming became limited to the repeating of prayers. As a result, Spanish rezar now means ‘to pray,’ and the noun rezo is both ‘the act of praying’ and ‘a prayer.’

In the Middle Ages, Spanish looked back to the more general Latin recitāre and borrowed it as the doublet recitar. English acquired recite from Old French reciter, which of course goes back to the same Latin original as Spanish recitar. Corresponding to recitar/recite we have two nouns, recitación/recitation and the shared recital.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Some years ago I was in an upscale grocery store and noticed the following sign:

The irony was as delicious as the fruit cobbler (presumably), and while the sign suggests enjoying it with ice cream, I prefer to enjoy it with you: of all the words to mess up, perfection is the worst one. Our word perfección/perfection comes straight from the Latin stem perfection-, derived from the past participle of the verb perficere ‘to achieve, carry out, accomplish.’ That in turn was a compound of the important verb facere ‘to do,’ the ancestor of the equally important Spanish hacer. The prefix per- added a sense of thoroughness or completion, and as a result perfección/perfection is a state in which something has been done so thoroughly and so well that nothing can surpass it. Incorporating the same stem as the noun is our adjective perfecto/perfect. English perfect, with a shift of stress to the second syllable, doubles as a verb, while Spanish makes its verb perfeccionar not directly from the adjective but from the noun perfección. The opposite of perfecto/perfect is imperfecto/imperfect, a good description for this sign, which not only left the r out of perfection but also mistakenly turned the past participle topped into the bare verb top.

But back to food: having spoken of cobbler and ice cream, I find myself with a perfect opening to add that English has the doublet parfait, the French cognate of perfect. A parfait is a dessert made with layers of ice cream, fruit, meringue and syrup, all topped (not top, the grocery sign’s second fall from perfection) with whipped cream. Whether you find the parfait to be the perfect dessert is a matter of preference, of course; as the French say, Chacun à son goût, Cada uno a su gusto, Each to his own taste.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman


The female name Allegra is uncommon, but it appeared in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was once the most widely read poet in the United States but whose name has become as unfamiliar as Allegra. Longfellow called his 1860 poem “The Children’s Hour,” and it goes like this:

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, o blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

*   *   *

The children named in the poem were the three youngest of Longfellow’s six. Allegra was the youngest of all, and her name is the feminine of Italian allegro, which has the same senses of ‘merry, cheerful’ as its Spanish cognate alegre. The Italian and Spanish words go back to Latin alacer, whose meanings included ‘lively, brisk, quick, eager, excited, glad, happy.Corresponding to the Latin adjective was the noun alacritas, which could mean ‘liveliness, ardor, eagerness, alacrity, cheerfulness, encouragement.’ Spanish hasn’t borrowed that, preferring to create its own alegría, but English has; the noun alacrity means, in the definition of the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, ‘a cheerful readiness, willingness, or promptitude; joyous activity; briskness; sprightliness; as, the soldiers advanced with alacrity to meet the enemy.’

Perhaps today’s posting will prompt you to advance with alacrity to read other works by Longfellow, who, in addition to being the most popular American poet of his day, was a professor of modern languages.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Garbage and garbanzo

Garbage pickup is once a week in Austin, and as I dutifully carried out my bit of trash one Wednesday, which is the day for my neighborhood, I wondered if garbage might have any connection to a Spanish word. I couldn’t find any, and it’s not even clear that the -age ending is the French-derived suffix that corresponds to Spanish -aje. Garbage appeared only in Middle English, when it meant ‘offal of fowls,’ and its origin is uncertain.

Oh well, no success there, so I turned to the next word in my English dictionary, garbanzo. The question “Does garbanzo have a connection to Spanish” is a strange one, because garbanzo is a Spanish word, which English has taken to using alongside the earlier and still current chickpea.

What is now garbanzo in Spanish and English was arvanço in Old Spanish, and the g- that got added at the beginning seems due to influence from Spanish garroba, a word of Arabic origin that means ‘carob.’ Both plants are in the legume family and produce beans, but I wouldn’t try interchanging them in any recipes.

From garbanzo Spanish has created garbancero, which as an adjective means ‘pertaining to chickpeas’ and as a noun is ‘a person who deals in chickpeas.’ The DRAE also gives the noun the extended meaning ‘a thing or person that’s commonplace, ordinary.’ The diminutive garbanzuelo is literally ‘a small garbanzo’ but a secondary sense is ‘a disease that afflicts a horse’s legs and can produce small tumors,’ which presumably look something like little garbanzos.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


I recently ran across the word lustworthy applied to a camera lens rather than something more conventionally voluptuous, but I was reading Popular Photography, so what can you expect? In any case, etymology is something readers of this blog lust after, so let’s do it. Relatives of native English lust exist in other Germanic languages, including German Lust, which means ‘pleasure, delight, amusement, inclination.’ English, but apparently not Spanish, has borrowed the German compound Wanderlust ‘urge to travel.’

The underlying Indo-European root is *las-, which the American Heritage Dictionary glosses as ‘to be eager, wanton, or unruly.’ One descendant of that root in Latin was lascīvus, which meant ‘lustful, playful,’ and which is the source of lascivo/lascivious. The corresponding abstract noun in Latin was lascīvia, which Spanish has carried over unchanged. (Note that someone in Spain will pronounce both the s and the ci [θi], whereas Spanish speakers in the Americas will not pronounce the c.) English, on the other hand, has turned lascivious into the noun lasciviousness. Whether any lascivious English speakers would ever lust after the fancy word lasciviousness is an open question.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Spanish and English have both borrowed the Japanese word karaoke, which refers to a form of entertainment (but not necessarily for listeners) in which someone sings along to an orchestral version of a song whose lyrics appear on a television or other monitor. We note that Spanish preserves the Japanese pronunciation of karaoke, which an English speaker usually changes to something like carry-okie—and let’s hope said speaker does better carrying a tune than accurately pronouncing the word karaoke.

The first element of what turns out to be a compound is Japanese kara, meaning ‘void’ or empty,’ because the recorded version of the song that’s being played is ‘empty’ of a vocal part. The second half of the compound will come as a surprise, because oke is a shortened form of ōkesutora. Not surprised yet? Then I’ll add that ōkesutora is the closest that Japanese could come to pronouncing orchestra when it borrowed the word from English.

But wait: there’s another surprise in store. We now use orquestra/orchestra to mean ‘a (usually) large group of instruments playing together,’ but the original Greek orchēstra designated, with respect to a theater, ‘the space in front of a stage where the chorus would perform.’ In fact the word was based on Greek orkheisthai, which meant ‘to dance,’ so over the centuries the people involved went from dancing to declaiming to playing musical instruments.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Hembra is one of those Spanish words that an English speaker isn’t initially likely to make any connection to, but knowledge of a few of the quirks that Latin underwent on its way to becoming Spanish soon renders the word recognizable as a descendant of Latin femina ‘woman.’

First, three-syllable Latin words with a strong stress on the first syllable sometimes lost their middle vowel: Latin femina would have become *femna.

Second, given two nasal consonants in a row, Spanish would have replaced the second one with a non-nasal sonant that has the same point of articulation: *femna would have become *femra.

Next, to smooth the transition from m to r, proto-Spanish speakers would have introduced a consonant to ease that transition: *femra would have become *fembra.

Independent of those changes, in many Latin words that began with an f, that initial sound gradually weakened to/h/ and then ceased to be pronounced at all, even though an h was retained in the spelling. As a result, *fembra would have become modern Spanish hembra.

French underwent a rather different development of femina that ended up producing femme (pronounced /fam/ in French). We sometimes encounter that word in the phrases femme fatale and cherchez la femme, both of which have negative connotations.

In a borrowing with neutral connotations, Spanish and English went back to Latin for the adjective femenino/feminine.

© 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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