Three times in my nature blog this week I played off the familiar English-language saying that “variety is the spice of life” by writing that “variety is the species of life.” It’s more than just wordplay, though, because spice and species are doublets, two words in a given language that trace back etymologically to the same ancestor. Usually both members of the pair have changed from the common ancestor, but in this case one of the two, species, happens to be the original form. Created from the same root as the Latin verb specere ‘to look at,’ the Latin noun speciēs had as its basic meaning ‘a seeing, sight, look, view.’ According to A Latin Dictionary, derived meanings included ‘the outward appearance, outside, exterior; shape, form, figure; a seeming, semblance, pretense, cloak, color, pretext; a likeness, image.’ Eventually came the sense, still in Roman times, of ‘the particular thing among many to which the looks are turned; hence, a particular sort, kind, or quality, a species.’
When early biologists needed a word for ‘a group of organisms that have a common appearance,’ they adopted Latin speciēs. (Although many people think they know what a species is, the term is actually difficult if not impossible to define in a way that works for everything that botanists and zoologists have called a species.) Along a somewhat different semantic line, speciēs acquired in Late Latin the meaning ‘goods or wares that are classed together.’ That sense persisted in the Old French word that developed from speciēs, espice, which is the source of modern English spice. To see the historical semantic link, we can conjure up an image of exotic spice merchants with their herbs all neatly arrayed and classified by type, i.e. species, and purpose.
Note that the English word species has only one species of form, species, for both singular and plural, in contrast to spice, which behaves like a normal English noun and adds an s to make the two-syllable plural spices. So spice has more variety in its life as a noun than does species, even if species designates many more types of plants than those relatively few that people use as spices.
Spanish, too, has ended up with doublets from Latin speciēs. Corresponding to French-derived English spice Spanish has especia. The much more nuanced Spanish especie can mean ‘species, kind, sort; nature; mental image; event, incident; pretext, show; proposition; piece of news.’
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman