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


Those of you who follow politics in the United States may be aware that last week a candidate for the Senate from Montana dropped out of the race after accusations that he had repeatedly plagiarized in a research paper he submitted while in graduate school. Where English uses the verb plagiarize, Spanish has the simpler plagiar. The word goes back to Latin plagiare, based on the noun plagium, which Lewis and Short’s 19th-century A Latin Dictionary defined as ‘man-stealing, kidnapping, the selling of freemen as slaves.’ Spanish has altered plagium slightly to plagio, for which English once again uses a longer form, plagiarism. In some versions of Latin American Spanish, plagiar can still mean ‘to kidnap,’ but more generally now a plagiario/plagiarist is ‘a person who “kidnaps” a piece of someone else’s writing, music, or other creative work and passes it off as his own.’

Latin had created its noun plagium from plaga, which meant ‘a hunting net, a snare,’ and that definition tells us the means by which the Romans must often have kidnapped people. Better that, we may have to admit reluctantly, than sneaking up behind them and hitting them over the head.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Siglo de Oro writer Mateo Alemán was Spanish, and politician Miguel Alemán rose to be president of Mexico, yet alemán in Spanish means ‘German,’ which is the translational truth, and closer to the etymological one as well. Spanish acquired alemán from Latin Alemannus, the singular of Alemanni, which was the Latinized version of the name by which the members of a certain Germanic tribe referred to themselves. With a flash of insight, all men and women who speak English, which is after all a Germanic language, may see that the ancient Alemanni called themselves straightforwardly ‘all men,’ where men had the general sense ‘people,’ as opposed to the narrower modern sense ‘male human beings.’ Similarly, the normandos/Normans are ‘north men,’ people who lived and still live in the north of what is now France, in the region therefore called Normandía/Normandy.

While we’re on the subject of man, we should note that English woman contains that word as its second element. Changes in pronunciation and spelling have obscured the first element, which in Old English was wīf, the forerunner of modern wife. Old English wīf meant ‘woman,’ so the wīfman that has become woman meant ‘person of the womanly kind.’ The fact that the first element in woman started out as wīf also explains why the first syllable in the plural women is pronounced wim, as if spelled with an i, because in fact it once was spelled with an i.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Students of Spanish sometimes become aware of gallego/Galician, which is spoken in the part of Spain that sticks out above Portugal and is a descendant of Galician-Portuguese (called gallego-portugués in Spanish and galego-português in Portuguese). The most famous writer in the Galician language—though she wrote in Spanish also—was Rosalía de Castro, who lived in the 1800s. One of her poems begins like this:

Nasín cand’ as prantas nasen,
No mes das froles nasín,
Nunha alborada mainiña,
Nunha alborada d’abril.
Por eso me chaman Rosa,
Mais á do triste sorrir,
Con espiñas para todos,
Sin ningunha para ti.

With a little help, a Spanish speaker can understand it:

Nací cuando las plantas nacen,
En el mes de las flores nací,
En una alborada mansita,
En una alborada de abril.
Por eso me llaman Rosa,
Mas la del triste sonreír,
Con espinas para todos,
Sin ninguna para tí.

(Those who would like to see the rest of the poem as well as an English translation can turn to A.Z. Foreman’s blog.)

The last word in the quoted portion, ti, brings us to the subject (or should I say object?) of today’s Spanish-English word connection: the second-person singular personal pronoun. As a subject, Spanish uses ; as the direct or indirect object of a verb, te; as the object of a pronoun, . English now translates them all as you, which does double duty as a plural, but English once had the singular thou and thee, which are cognates of the Spanish forms. English speakers still encounter thou and thee in literature and old versions of the Bible, where thou serves as a subject and thee as an object. Most speakers of English today have no idea when to use each form or (in the case of thou) the -st ending of the present-tense verb. As an example of that ignorance, take a current American television commercial for insurance. It features an old-time scene in which one man says “Lookest over there” in order to fool another into needlessly looking at something, then says “Madest thou look.” The correct statements would have been “Look (thou) over there” and “(I) made thee look.”

I hope thou hast enjoyed that. See thee next time.


After preparing the last post I happened to visit Anne Jutras’s French-language blog and came across a post that began with this sentence: “Quand j’étais petite, j’étais obnubilée par les couchers de soleil.” That translates to: “When I was little, I was X by sunsets,” where I’ve substituted X for the feminine past participle obnubilée. I wasn’t sure what the verb obnubiler meant, so I looked it up and found its French meanings include ‘to obscure, obstruct, obsess, hypnotize,’ the last two of which make sense for X. From the first meaning, ‘to obscure,’ I could tell that the verb was based on the Latin word for ‘cloud,’ nūbēs, which we saw last time is the ancestor of Spanish nube. The etymological sense of French obnubiler is therefore ‘to becloud.’

But this is a blog about English and Spanish, so the next thing I did was check to see if the Latinate French verb has the expected English counterpart obnubilate, and sure enough it does. The Oxford Dictionaries give this definition: ‘Darken, dim, or cover with or as if with a cloud; obscure.‘ Finally I checked the DRAE and found obnubilar similarly defined. Notice that English obnubilate and Spanish obnubilar have not taken on the extended ‘obsess, hypnotize‘ senses of the French cognate that led me to the word in the first place.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


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

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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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