One of the curiosities in the development of the Romance languages was the general loss of a word that was very common in Latin, magnus, whose many senses included ‘big, great, large, extensive, vast, tall, mighty.’ It survives, disguised, in Spanish tamaño, which evolved from Latin tam magnus ‘so great,’ although that adjective phrase became a noun along the way and tamaño ended up meaning ‘size.’ In addition, by borrowing directly from Latin, rather than via evolution, Spanish has magnitud, just as English has magnitude.

As magnus faded from the developing Romance languages, it was generally replaced with a descendant of Latin grandis, which had meant ‘large, great, full, abundant, grown up, old.’ Spanish and Portuguese and Italian have grande, French has grand, and Catalan has gran.

The Latin adjective largus, another synonym of magnus, also survived, but often with semantic change. In Spanish, largo came to mean ‘long.’ One of the original Latin senses persists in English large, borrowed from Old French, even though in modern French the word’s meaning shifted to ‘wide.’ Similarly, Italian largo covers the senses ‘wide, broad, extensive.’ Italian also put the word to work in music, where it designates ‘a very slow passage.’ Perhaps that semantic transfer originated from the fact that when a river widens it usually slows down because the water is spread over a larger area. Whatever the origin of the semantic broadening, Spanish has added the Italian musical sense. So has English, and largo is now a doublet of large.

Corresponding to the adjective largo Spanish has the abstract noun largueza ‘length.’ English has largeness, which means ‘size,’ and usually ‘great size.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


A popular new word in English is selfie, which means ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website.’ Obviously the word is an extension of self, a native English cognate of the Spanish reflexive pronoun se, so it’s no coincidence that English self and Spanish se look similar and have similar meanings. Also from the same root is the Spanish adjective su, which bewilders English speakers with its many possible translations: ‘his; her; its; your; their.’

The s-words in the previous paragraphs are descendants of the Indo-European root *s(w)e-, which conveyed the notion ‘by oneself, apart, separate,’ and in fact separar/separate is borrowed from Latin sēparāre, which features sē- as a prefix. (Through French, English also has different-looking descendants of Latin sēparāre, including the verb sever and the adjective several). We find se- as a prefix meaning ‘apart’ in various other words that we’ve borrowed from Latin. A few examples are seguro/secure, etymologically ‘apart from care’; seleccionar/select, etymologically ‘to separate out, to set aside’; and secesión/secession ‘the separation of a political unit from a larger entity.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


In an article in Smithsonian magazine some time ago I came across the alliterative phrase “caliginous corners,” whose first word was new to me. English caliginous, like Spanish caliginoso, comes straight from Latin clginsus, which meant, as do our modern borrowings, ‘full of mist, covered with mist, dark, obscure, gloomy.’ The Latin adjective corresponded to the noun clg, with stem clgin-, whose meanings included ‘a thick atmosphere, a mist, vapor, fog.’ An extended sense of that Latin noun was ‘dim-sightedness, weakness of the eyes,’ and modern medicine has carried over caligo to designate ‘a speck on the cornea causing poor vision.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Twice in as many hours on a recent morning I came across the common misspelling *supercede. Life would be simpler for writers in English if *supercede superseded the correct spelling supersede and joined the crowded field of cede, recede, secede, intercede, proceed, succeed**, etc., all spelled with a c. But history is history, and while all those c-words are based on Latin cedere ‘to go, move, walk, depart, yield,’ supersede goes back to Latin sedēre ‘to sit.’ In particular, the Latin compound supersedēre, with prefix super ‘above’ (the ancestor of Spanish sobre), meant literally ‘to sit on top of.’ From that comes the modern sense of supersede in English: ‘to replace, supplant.’ Latin also gave supersedēre the sense ‘to abstain, refrain, desist,’ and when supersede first came into English (spelled supercede!) from Old French, it meant ‘to postpone, defer.’ Those are still the senses of the Spanish counterpart sobreseer.***

As for s versus c in supersede, it seems that the times they are a-changin’. The 2013 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary says this: “The spelling with a c has been in existence for 300 years and has traditionally been considered an error, but it appears so widely in books and other edited publications that this spelling must be considered standard.”


* Linguists put an asterisk at the beginning of an utterance to show it is non-standard, non-existent, not attested, or not accepted by native speakers.

** Even within this majoritarian group, it would help if English could settle on -cede or -ceed, rather than sometimes using one spelling and sometimes the other.

*** If the -seer in sobreseer looks suspiciously close to the verb ser, it’s not a coincidence. In Old Spanish, ser was seer. The modern forms of  ser are a mixture, with some coming from esse, the Latin verb for ‘to be,’ and others (the infinitive and the tenses based on it) coming from sedēre ‘to sit.’ To be or not to be: Spanish sat on the question.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


English speakers who study chemistry may wonder why Pb is the symbol for the element lead, a word that has neither a p nor a b in it. Spanish speakers easily get half-way to an explanation because their word for lead is plomo. If we go back in time, we find that plomo evolved from the Latin word plumbum, from which chemists created the abbreviation Pb.

Returning to English, we see a borrowing of the Latin original in plumb, which is ‘a weight attached to the end of a string to make it hang vertically’; such a weight was presumably made out of lead, which is both heavy and easy to shape. Furthermore, because a weighted string hangs straight down*, English speakers took to using plumb as a synonym for ‘downright,’ as when saying someone is plumb crazy, meaning ‘downright crazy.’ And speaking of craziness, we know today that lead is poisonous, yet the word plomero/plumber tells us that water pipes used to be made of lead; modern historians attribute some occurrences of madness in past centuries to overdoses of lead from drinking water that had passed through lead pipes. In any case, I’d be crazy not to mention that the Spanish cognate for plumb is plomada.

The Old French phrase a plomb ‘perpendicularly’ led to the English noun aplomb, with figurative meanings ‘poise, assurance, self-confidence.’ The Spanish counterpart aplomo can have the literal sense ‘verticality’ but also the figurative meanings ‘gravity, serenity, circumspection.’

On the negative side, Spanish desplomar means ‘to cause something to lose its vertical position.’ With respect to a wall or building, the reflexive desplomarse is ‘to lean’ or even ‘to fall over, collapse.’ Also usually negative is English plummet ‘to fall at high speed, especially when out of control.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


* Hang down, like fall down, is redundant, but I won’t get hung up on that now.


The fact that the last post dealt with students and pollo reminds me of an old joke I learned when I first took Portuguese in 1965, about the English-speaking student who supposedly saw the word repollo  and translated it as ‘re-chicken.’ Obviously that “translation” makes no sense*, but the strange truth is that repollo ‘cabbage’ is related to pollo ‘chicken.’ Both go back to Latin pullus, which meant ‘a young animal.’ Even in Roman times the notion of ‘a young organism’ allowed pullus to take on the extended sense ‘a sprout,’ and the later prefixing of re- in the creation of Old Spanish repollo further reinforced the idea of a very young plant. The particular plant that people applied the word to was one that the Romans had been quite fond of, namely cabbage.

Moving back into the animal kingdom, we note that Latin pullus was the cognate of native Old English fola, which has become the modern foal that means ‘a young horse or similar animal.’ As a result, Spanish pollo and English foal are etymologically, even if not biologically, the same animal.


* You might ask how someone could offer a translation that doesn’t make sense, but I assure you from years of teaching that it’s not unusual on a test or in a paper for students to write something that doesn’t make sense and that they can’t explain if you ask them about it.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Some time back I ran across the Spanish word empollón, which was new to me. The DRAE marks it as despectivo ‘derogatory’ and defines it this way: ‘Dicho de un estudiante: Que prepara mucho sus lecciones, y se distingue más por la aplicación que por el talento.’ (Let me translate that loosely: ‘Said of a student who slaves away on assignments and gets good grades more through brute force than through ability.’)

The adjective/noun empollón is derived from the verb empollar, which means literally ‘to incubate, to hatch,’ but the mental image of a bird putting in arduous days sitting on an egg to get it to hatch has led to extended meanings like ‘toil, slave away, work one’s fingers to the bone, plug away, slog,’ and, with reference to students, ‘cram.’

It’s not hard to see that empollar contains the elements en ‘in’ and pollo, which we’re used to translating into English as ‘chicken’ but which earlier meant more generally—and still can mean—’chick, the young of a bird.’ (Notice, similarly, how the English word chicken is based on chick.) A related English word that came into the language from Old French is pullet, which is etymologically equivalent to the Spanish diminutive pollito, and which designates ‘a young chicken, especially one less than a year old.’ Another relative that English borrowed is poultry, which likewise traces back to an Old French cognate of Spanish pollo.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Potasio is the “Spanishized” version of scientific Latin potassium, the form that English uses unchanged as the name of chemical element number 19. English had previously used the form potass, from French potasse. French had taken the word from Dutch potas, a compound of pot, which means the same as the identical English word, and as, which is a cognate of English ash. In fact English has the corresponding compound potash, a singular that was copied from the Dutch plural potaschen. Pot ashes, you see, were people’s original source of potassium.

It’s not a coincidence that English pot resembles Spanish pote, whose meanings include ‘pot, jar, mug, jug.’ Spanish took the word from Catalan pot, which, like French and English pot, ultimately traces back to Vulgar Latin *pottus, for which no prior source is known. Spanish pote gave rise to the alternate form bote, which designates various containers, including ‘a can, a jar, a tin.’

Coming back to potasio/potassium, whose etymology is easy enough to trace, one question may come to mind for anyone who has taken an elementary chemistry class: how did K come to be the chemical symbol for potassium? According to, “The chemical symbol K comes from kalium, the Mediaeval Latin word for potash, which may have been taken from the Arabic word qali, meaning alkali.”

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


On the website of the Meadows Museum of Art I found this sentence: “The Ecstasy of Saint Francis from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is an excellent example of the artist’s mature style, characterized by dramatic tenebrism, lively paint handling, and by the expressiveness of his compositions’ figures.” Hmm. What, you wonder, might tenebrism be? It’s an art-history term, and here’s the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s article on the subject:

Tenebrism, from the Italian tenebroso (murky), also called dramatic illumination, is a style of painting using very pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark and darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. Caravaggio, a Baroque artist, is generally credited with the invention of the style, although this technique was used much earlier by various artists, such as Albrecht Dürer.

The word tenebrism is based on Latin tenebrae, a plural that means ‘shadows.’ The American Heritage Dictionary says that in Catholicism, and in capitalized form, Tenebrae is ‘The office of matins and lauds sung on the last three days of Holy Week, with a ceremony of candles.’

The Latin adjective corresponding to tenebrae was tenebrōsus, from which we have the fancy adjective tenebroso/tenebrous. Spanish speakers will recognize Latin tenebrae as the source of tinieblas ‘shadows.’ Spanish occasionally uses the singular tiniebla, but the plural form far overshadows the singular. Joan Corominas points out that in older Spanish the form had been tiniebra, but influence from the etymologically (though not semantically) unrelated niebla ‘mist, haze, fog’ caused the change to tiniebla.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


The website says that “Chardonnay, America’s number one selling white wine varietal, continues to climb the production ladders to emerge as the most beloved of dry white wines in the U.S.” Another website called Le Chardonnay explains that in the French department of Saône-et-Loire there’s a village named Chardonnay, which is where the wine presumably originated, and that the village’s French name developed from Latin Cardonnacum. The Romans would have named the place after the thistles that grew there, because the Late Latin word for ‘thistle’ was cardo, with stem cardon-. The noun passed through Old Provençal and Old French to become Middle English cardoun. That is now cardoon, the English name for a close relative of the artichoke that the American Heritage Dictionary says is “cultivated for its edible leafstalks and roots.”

The Classical Latin word for ‘thistle’ had been carduus, but Medieval Latin used the simpler cardus, from which Spanish now has cardo. Spanish also has the augmentative cardón and the diminutive cardillo. The Vulgar Latin diminutive *cardunculus led to Spanish forms (some of them dialectal) that include cardoncho, cardoncha, cardencha, cardinche, and cardancho. From the simple cardo came the verb cardar, which shows that people found a use even for so prickly a thing as a thistle. Joan Corominas explains cardar as “‘peinar la lana antes de hilarlo’, lo cual se hacía con la cabeza del cardo o de la cardencha” (“‘to comb wool before spinning it,’ which was done with the head of a cardo or cardencha“). Similarly, Medieval Latin has given English the verb card, along with the identical noun that the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined as ‘an instrument for disentangling and arranging the fibers of cotton, wool, flax, etc.; or for cleaning and smoothing the hair of animals; — usually consisting of bent wire teeth set closely in rows in a thick piece of leather fastened to a back.’ That’s a useful word, but one I’m afraid the language is gradually discarding.

© 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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