The seemingly paradoxical title of today’s post is true: the simple word simple, which Spanish and English share, is not made up of a single element but originated as a compound of two. English took simple directly from Old French, where it had developed from two forms of what was etymologically a single word, Latin simplus and simplex; Spanish simple evolved more simply from simplus. The first element in both Latin compounds had come from the Indo-European root *sem-, which meant ‘one’ and ‘considered as one.’ The second element came from the Indo-European root *pel-, which meant the same as its English descendant fold and which also gave rise to the synonymous Latin verb plicare that is the source of Spanish plegar. Putting all this together in simple terms, etymologically: something simple has been folded up into one nice little package.
Linguists have put Latin simplex to work with the meaning ‘a word [unlike simplex itself!] which has no affixes and is not part of a compound.’ English toy is a simplex but Spanish juguete, with its diminutive suffix, is not (at least not if -ete is still perceived as a suffix).
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman