Greetings on this first day of noviembre/November. That entitles me to go off on a ramble similar to the one that appeared in this column a long thirteen months ago. Yes, it’s now November, the eleventh month of the year. But wait, doesn’t nov- mean ‘nine,’ and didn’t Latin novem evolve to nueve, the Spanish word for ‘nine’? And isn’t nine the native English cognate of Latin novem? No, there’s no escaping all that nice nineness.

So why is noviembre/November the eleventh month of the year? The answer is that the Roman calendar originally began with the month of March, and November was the ninth month of that year. The later addition of January and February bumped everything two months down the line, leaving septiembre/September, octubre/October, noviembre/November, and diciembre/December etymologically untrue to their numerical names.

Going back even farther, we note that the common ancestor of Latin novem and English nine was the Indo-European root for that number, *newn-. The slightly longer variant *enewn led to Greek ennea ‘nine,’ which we find in the eneágono/enneagon that is ‘a polygon with nine angles (and therefore also sides).’ Though it’s hardly a common figure, we have a second name for the enneagon: nonágono/nonagon, which uses the Latin root for ‘nine’ as its first element. But, at least as far as most English speakers are concerned, a nonagon might as well be a none-agon, because we have none of them around our houses.

Flash! This just in from the border between Mathistan and Etymologyland: scholars there have announced that the names of the polygons, like those of the last months of the calendar year, are off by two—though in the opposite direction—from their positions in the official ranking of polygons. The 1st possible polygon (because it takes at least three sides for a figure to close) is the triángulo/triangle, whose name contains the root for ‘3.’ The second possible polygon is the cuadrado/square, whose name contains the Latin root for ‘4’ (though it’s a bit concealed in the English version). The 3rd possible polygon is the pentágono/pentagon, whose name contains the Greek root for ‘5.’ And so it goes, out of the cradle endlessly rocking, but always with a name that means two higher than the figure’s position in the higher-archy of polygons.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


The post about nano-, a scientific prefix that carries a weight of ‘one one-billionth,’ or ’10 to the –9th power,’ seems to call for a follow-up about pico-, the next-smallest scientific prefix, which carries a weight of ‘one one-trillionth,’ or ’10 to the –12th power.’ That in turn raises a little question: is there any connection between pico- the prefix and the Spanish noun pico whose many meanings include ‘beak, bill; sharp point; spade (in cards); spout; peak of a hill; a little bit’? The straightforward answer is yes: the SI, or International System of weights and measures, took Spanish pico in its ‘little bit’ sense and turned it into a metric prefix. That ‘little bit’ sense often appears in Spanish in a construction like cuarenta y pico, which English might render ‘a bit more than forty’ or ‘forty-something’ or, with a mathematical reference as a bonus, ‘forty-odd.’

The pico that is ‘a bird’s beak or bill’ evolved from Latin beccus, a word that is likely of Celtic origin and that referred especially to the beak of a rooster. The Celts of ancient Gaul became the French of today, and the Latin beccus that developed to Old French bec has passed into English as beak. The notion of ‘a little bit’ conveyed by Spanish pico seems to have arisen from the notion of a bird’s beak tapering to a point, which is a tiny thing. By analogy of shape, Spanish pico came to mean things like ‘a sharp point; a pick(ax); a spout.’ In colloquial Spanish, pico can be ‘a mouth’ in general, so that a request to cerrar el pico is tantamount to an order to ‘shut your trap’ or ‘shut up.’ With the opposite emotional charge, in some Spanish-speaking regions a pico is ‘a kiss.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


With respect to a circle, students of geometry learn that the line called the secante/secant is one that cuts across the circle in two places. The name isn’t arbitrary: the word is the present participle of the Latin verb secare ‘to cut,’ so the secant line is a ‘cutting’ line. As Latin evolved to Spanish, secare became segar, whose basic meaning is ‘to cut down ripe grain or other plants with a sickle, scythe, or other dedicated instrument; to reap, to harvest, to crop.’ The verb can also mean ‘to cut off something that sticks out,’ including, for someone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, a head. More generally segar is ‘to cut off or interrupt quickly or abruptly.’

Spanish segador is literally ‘someone or something that harvests,’ but the word has a specialized meaning in zoology, where it designates what English has similarly called a harvestman, though the term daddy-longlegs is more familiar to most English speakers. The creature in question is an invertebrate that people might at first glance take for a long-legged spider, and although it does have eight legs, its tiny body has only one section, unlike the two major sections (abdomen and cephalothorax) of a spider. The name segador/harvestman apparently comes from the resemblance of each of the little animal’s elongated, thin, conspicuously jointed legs to a scythe or sickle.

A harvestman on a harvester

Before I cut off this post, I’d like to point out that English sickle, mentioned twice in the paragraphs above in conjunction with cutting grain or other plants, developed from Old English sicol. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed that word from Vulgar Latin sicila, a variant of the classical Latin secula that had the same root as secare ‘to cut’ and that meant ‘a sickle.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

In my prime

The previous article was the 181st in this series, and you’ll forgive the eternal math teacher for saying that that post certainly makes me feel like I’m in my prime—not only because 181 is a lot of articles for a little over half a year, but also because 181 is what mathematicians call a número primo/prime number. The primes are one of three categories into which the positive whole numbers are divided. Most common are the composites, each member of which can be represented by a rectangular array of dots with the same number of dots in each row. For example, we can represent the composite number 12 as three rows of four dots each:

•    •    •    •
•    •    •    •
•    •    •    •

In contrast, a prime number cannot be represented as a rectangular array. We may try with the prime number 7, for example, but we have one dot too few to fill up a second row

•    •    •    •
•    •    •

or we have a surplus dot that spills over into a third row

•    •    •
•    •    •

The only possible arrangement for 7 is

•    •    •    •    •    •    •

In other words, all the dots end up in the first—and only—row. That’s one way of explaining why such numbers are called prime, from the Latin word for ‘first,’ primus (which we discussed in the recent entry for primavera). Historically, the ancient Greeks had the notion that the primes are first in importance, the fundamental type of whole number; the composites are secondary because they can always be expressed as products of primes (which amounts to saying that we can make rectangular arrays of dots to represent them).

Ironically, as fortunate readers may remember having been taught during their years en la primaria/in primary school, the Greeks placed the very first positive whole number, 1, which was of prime importance to them, in a category of its own. The ancients accorded the number 1 that distinction for being the first [positive whole] number, the generator of all others.

All of this tempts me to proclaim the primacía/primacy of mathematics over everything else, but I would never do such a thing in a column about etymology, where words are our prime consideration.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


A short and pessimistic poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, author of another poem that I quoted in the first week of this blog, goes like this:

Mi vida es un erial:
flor que toco se deshoja;
que en mi camino fatal,
alguien va sembrando el mal
para que yo lo recoja.

If you like, you can hear it recited. And here’s a rough, non-poetic translation into English (note that the number of words it takes to paraphrase the poem stands in inverse relation to how well crafted it is):

My life is a wasteland.
No sooner do I touch a flower than its petals fall off.
It must be the case that on my fatal path
someone is sowing the seeds of misfortune
so that I’ll come along and reap the harvest.

Of all the words in the poem, probably the least common is erial, whose basic meaning is ‘a barren or uncultivated piece of land.’ Erial is based on the less common ería, which seems to have come from Latin area, a term whose meanings included ‘ground for a house; a building spot; a vacant space around or in a house; a playground; a threshing floor; a bed or border in a garden; a burying ground.’ The Romans even used it lightheartedly for ‘a bald spot on someone’s head.’ Spanish and English have borrowed the Latin word (with Spanish writing it área) in the sense ‘a portion of a surface or a place.’ English takes the abstraction further than Spanish: an area can be ‘a subject’ or ‘a type of activity.’ From the original notion of ‘vacant space in a house’ comes the mathematical sense ‘the amount of space a figure encloses.’ One unit for measuring that two-dimensional space is the área/are, which equals 100 square meters; a hectárea/hectare is ‘100 ares’ or ‘10,000 square meters.’

In English, area and are are doublets. Spanish uses área for both of those, but alongside área it has its own doublet era, which preserves the Latin meanings ‘a threshing floor’ and ‘a plot of earth used for growing flowers or vegetables.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Save 0¢

As I wandered the aisles of my local Whole Foods one afternoon not long ago I, noticed a bright yellow sign attached to the glass door of a showcase containing packages of frozen vegetables. At the top of the sign was the word SALE, but when I looked at the other information on the sign I saw that the “sale” price was $1.49, which also happened to be the regular price of one of those bags of frozen vegetables. Truth-teller that the sign was, its “You save ___” section read “You save 0¢.” Now, I don’t think I’d ever seen a sign making a big to-do of the fact that customers would save nothing by buying an item, so I called over the first person I could find who worked in the store and pointed out the sign to him. He was baffled by it too, so he ended up giving me a bag of vegetables for a price equal to the advertised amount of the “savings,” which is to say that I ended up paying zero for my bag of frozen vegetables.

If that sign was strange, so is the word cero/zero. If you’re wondering why I say cero/zero is peculiar, ask yourself whether zero is singular or plural. The number one is certainly a singular, and any attached noun shows that: un centavo, one cent. Two, three, four, and every higher number are plurals, and any modified noun takes a plural form: dos centavos, two cents. Now for the strangeness: zero isn’t even as big as one, zero is in fact nothing, but when zero comes before a count noun (a noun that can be pluralized because it refers to things that are countable), that count noun appears in the plural. For example, a review of the children’s book How Many Elephants included the sentence “We open the flap that is the closet door to find zero elephants in the closet.” Spanish treats cero the same way, and I even found an example with the same noun; a Spanish-language Wikipedia article on cero has this question and answer: “¿Cuánto tiempo tardaremos en llenar la caja [con elefantes]? Jamás la llenaremos si tenemos cero elefantes.” And if you let me use the word singular with its meaning ‘out of the ordinary, unusual, strange,’ then I can put the striking conclusion this way:

The singular number cero/zero behaves like a plural.

This strange behavior of the number 0 most likely comes from the fact that for most of human history, whenever people started to count things, they began with 1, and that’s still almost always true today. Indo-European reflected human history: it had a set of endings for the singular, and another set for the dual, which was used for things that come in natural pairs, like eyes. Beyond that, all other whole numbers were put into the plural category, for which there was a third set of endings. After thousands (probably tens of thousands) of years of human development, some very smart people—notably among the ancient Hindus and Mayans—conceived the idea of zero. Psychologically, we seem to think of the number 0 as just another late addition to our number system, and we lump it in with all the large numbers that we are free to add to the right end, which is the plural end, of the infinite chain of numbers.

But wait, you object: this is a language blog, not a blog devoted to grocery stores or mathematics, and you’ve told us zero about the origins of the word cero/zero itself. All right, let’s zero in on that bit of etymology. Spanish and English borrowed their words from Italian zero, which was simplified from Medieval Latin zephirum. That had come from the Arabic sifr that meant ‘empty, nothing,’ which is a good description of zero. In a different line of development, Medieval Latin turned the Arabic word into cifra, which passed unchanged into Spanish; it also became Old French cifre and then English cipher, which originally meant the same as its doublet zero. A cifra/cipher came to be ‘a character in general, whether a letter or a digit.’ Then, because people have long used numbers and letters to encode messages that they wanted to keep hidden, cifra/cipher added the meaning ‘a secret system of writing.’ Corresponding to that sense of the word we have the verb descifrar/decipher, with its extended meaning ‘to figure out’ (and notice how English figure can be a synonym of cipher).

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Note: For another take on zero and cipher, see a recent post at The virtual linguist.


We’ve taken to using Greek meta, which meant ‘beside, after,’ as a prefix meaning ‘beyond, transcending.’ For example, metafísica/metaphysics deals with things that go beyond the realm of physics and the other natural sciences. In another life—that phrase makes it seem as if I’m going to keep talking about metaphysics, but I’m not—in another life, I say, I taught mathematics, and from time to time I pointed out to my students things that could be called metamatemáticas/metamathematical. For instance, if a multiple-choice question on a test includes an answer with the word always or never in it, that is probably not the right choice, because few things are as absolute as a word like always or never implies. Notice that this goes beyond mathematics: a teacher of English or history could give the same advice about multiple-choice tests in those subjects.

The field of metalingüística/metalinguistics goes beyond the study of language per se and deals with the way language affects culture. Today, after 127 postings, I’ve decided to take a metalinguistic look at this blog (and the math teacher can’t help noticing that 127 is the sum of a perfect square and a perfect cube, 10 squared plus 3 cubed). In particular, I thought I’d list some of the search phrases that have brought people here over the five months that I’ve been writing these entries. As you read through those phrases, I think you’ll be impressed at the way search-engine algorithms were able to make sense of typos and misspellings, e.g. spainish (Spanish), siffix (suffix), barrowed (borrowed), twon (two), and sabeth (Sabbath). I also think you’ll find some of these search phrases funny or strange, like “line on top of i in the spanish word ir,” when of course there is no line or macron or accent mark on top of the i in Spanish ir.

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried some of these phrases on Google, and they haven’t always brought up this blog as a hit. If any of the words strike your fancy and you’re curious what I’ve written about them, remember that in addition to using external search engines, you can search within all the postings of this blog by entering a word or phrase in the search box near the upper right corner of the page.

So that’s the gist of posting number 128 (and the math teacher can’t help pointing out that not only are 1, 2 and 8 all powers of 2, but 128 itself is 2 to the 7th power). Without further ado I’ll say adieu, and here is the promised list of search phrases:

word connections

English word connections

English doublets

every english word in spanish form

what happens when a person eats crazy weed

where did pigritude come from

what does vaiven mean in English

what are the uncommon verbs in barrowed words

verdi quete

rhyming Spanish idioms

line on top of i in the spanish word ir

resemblance of hipopotamo with horse

french pear flower

hackberry butterfly

oct means eight why isnt october the eighth month of the year

verdugo last name negative

what is the spelling the word large in trhe following languages:spanish, french, italian

refudiate etymology

llevo spainish

latin english norman spanish vocabulary recognize

who sung te quiero verde in spanish

spanish capicua origins

mythology characters that were sang froid at a time of danger

spanish word for little feat

a group encounter defiled wordreference

modern altar

muerto moriras john donne

hoah ya quiro tu muertos spanish

a spanish word that means twon things

what is bronco to spanish

is fiesta a cognate or borrowed word

spanish words that have a r in the middle

avenience latin

what words enidng in y that means harsh, unpleasant sound?

white one abalorio

spanish words of middle parts

spanish matching sound words

children’s books 1930s with spanish words

the word sabado and sabeth

is almendra an spanish name? houman rights

abd in romance linguistics

2 words used english come from spanish [It sounds like someone was trying to get an answer to a homework assignment.]

descargas de diccionario español ingles

half a duck

this is the forest primeval

don afido [Does Spanish ever call an áfido/aphid a don?]

uncommon verb words

the word in engand and the word in english

what latin preposition means “on the outside”?

whats the idiom mistress mary,quite contrary

word English

what is a subibaja

Spanish diminutive científicos

words that begin with aage

ranunculus spoon [I think the person was trying for Edward Lear's runcible spoon.]

primeval latin

how today december in spanish

rana spanish animal to English

when a man calls you dama in Spanish

significado de la palabra siffix

did latin verbum mean verb

dame una querida meaning in English

buttercup latin name?

latin contralateral

what is a common expression in spanish which is equivilant to “the dog ate my homework”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


Yesterday’s posting dealt with rana ‘frog’ and a couple of its diminutives. Another Latin diminutive of rana had been ranunculus, which could refer to ‘a little frog’ or ‘a tadpole.’ Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary adds that the Romans used the word humorously to refer to ‘an inhabitant of Ulubrae,’ a village that was some 30 miles from Rome at the edge of the Pontine Marshes and therefore close to lots of frogs. Although that joking reference is lost to all but Latin scholars (and now readers of this blog), botanists have carried over another sense of ranunculus: the Romans used the word to designate ‘a certain medicinal plant,’ presumably because it or some part of it resembled a little frog, or perhaps because the plant was found in the same environment as frogs. Spanish has altered the word slightly to ranúnculo, and the unchanged Latin Ranunculus now serves as the genus name for the type of plant with yellow flowers that English knows as a ‘buttercup.’

A flower in the genus Ranunculus


Not to be outdone by biolgists, mathematicians have added the suffix -oid, which means ‘looking like, resembling,’ to create ranunculoid as the name of a certain five-lobed closed curve whose shape is like that of a buttercup’s flower.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


A few hours after I wrote about anfractuosidad/anfractuosity, which incorporates Latin fract- ‘broken,’ I saw in The New York Times that the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot had died. Mandelbrot (whose last name happens to mean ‘almond bread’) had the insight to discover or create the type of abstract mathematical object he named a fractal, based on the word fracción/fraction, which likewise goes back to Latin fract-; compared to the whole number 1, a common fraction like 3/5 is figuratively ‘broken.’ Mandelbrot chose the name fractal for his beautiful mathematical objects because he conceived them as having fractional dimensions. That conception fractured the mathematical orthodoxy of the time, but such an infracción/infraction is common to people of great insight. English might call such people fractious, which Noah Webster quaintly defined as ‘apt to break out into a passion; apt to quarrel; cross; snappish; as a fractious man.’

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

y e i

Yesterday’s column mentioned that the Russian cognate of Spanish y is И, which has the same pronunciation and meaning. Much closer to the Spanish-speaking world is Catalan i, which also means ‘and.’ Spanish has taken its share of words from Catalan, including a couple of picturesque phrases with i in them. One is Catalan canta i plora, which translates as canta y llora ‘it sings and it cries.’ Spanish has converted that to cantimplora, a noun that means ‘a siphon, water bottle, canteen, flask.’ The phrase originated as a clever description—we might say an imaginative and poetic one—of the sounds that people imagine they hear when a liquid gurgles its way through any of those containers. The other Catalan phrase that has flowed into Spanish is cap-i-cua, which corresponds to cabeza y cola ‘head and tail.’ Spanish has rewritten that as capicúa ‘a numeral that reads the same from “head” to “tail,” i.e from left to right, as it does from “tail” to “head,” i.e. from right to left.’ In other words, a capicúa is ‘a palindromic numeral’ like 14641. The arithmetically adept will recognize 14641 as the square of the likewise palindromic 121, which is itself the square of the palindromic 11. An impressed English speaker can reply in kind, which is to say palindromically, with “Wow!” or “Yay!” or “Aha!” Any Spanish speaker who would like to add an appropriate response in that language is welcome to post it as a comment.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman

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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