Students of Spanish-language literature know Sarmiento as the family name of Argentina’s seventh president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was also an intellectual and writer. Just as English has family names like Wood, Snow, Lake, and Forest, which are capitalized versions of common nouns, Sarmiento is a capitalized version of the sarmiento that means ‘a vine shoot; the stalk on which grapes grow.’ The noun comes, with little change in form, from Latin sarmentum, which meant ‘a twig, slender branch,’ and in the plural ‘brushwood.’ The Latin noun had come from the stem of sarpere, a verb whose meanings were, with reference to shrubs and branches, ‘to cut off, trim, prune, clean.’
If we go back farther, we find that Latin sarpere evolved from the Indo-European root *serp-, which designated the ‘sickle’ or ‘hook’ that a person would presumably use to prune shrubbery. When that Indo-European root passed on into Greek, where an initial s- typically became h-, it gave rise to Greek harpe ‘sickle.’ The Romans borrowed that as harpa, which may have evolved to Old French harpe ‘a sickle, claw, clamp.’ I say “may have evolved” because it’s possible that the Old French noun was based on a Germanic verb harpan that meant ‘to seize.’ Even if harpe did come from Latin, its sense was probably influenced by that of the similar-sounding Germanic root.
From Old French harpe came Anglo-Norman harpon, which originally meant ‘the clasp of a piece of jewelry.’ Only in the 1500s did harpon come to designate ‘a type of arrow used to catch whales and large fish.’ That definition identifies harpon as the forerunner of English harpoon. And there, with a tenuous link in the middle, we have a connection between English harpoon and Spanish sarmiento.
Corresponding to the noun sarmiento, Spanish has the adjective sarmentoso, which with respect to plants means ‘twining, climbing.’ When describing hands, sarmentoso has the extended [pun] senses ‘long and slender,’ while fingers that are characterized as sarmentosos are ‘gnarled.’ Botanical English uses sarmentose (or sarmentous, or even sarmentaceous) to mean ‘having stems that act as runners.’ Corresponding in form to Spanish sarmiento, botanical English sarment and the borrowed Latin sarmentum mean ‘a slender running stem, a runner.’
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman