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


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

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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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