A foxy plant

The German noun Fuchs** means the same as its native English cognate fox. Just as Fox serves as a family name in English, Fuchs does in German, and it so happens that the genus of plants called Fuchsia was named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs, who lived from 1501 to 1566. Because some of those plants produce flowers of a vivid reddish purple, that hue has been given the name fucsia/fuchsia. As far as I know, Spanish speakers don’t mess up their word for that color, but English speakers have mispronounced fuchsia for so long that the standard pronunciation has become fyoo-shuh. As a result of that pronunciation,  fuchsia is high on the list of the most often misspelled English words, with *fuschia probably appearing more often than the correct fuchsia.


** German still capitalizes its nouns, as English once did.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Oruga, the Spanish word for ‘caterpillar,’ developed from the synonymous Latin noun ūrūca. That Latin noun had another form, ērūca, and another meaning as the name for a certain plant in the cabbage (crucifer) family. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that it was “perhaps… so called from its hairy stems resembling caterpillars, or from the fact that cruciferous vegetables are often infested with caterpillars.” One name for that edible plant in English is colewort, the first part of which is a cognate of Spanish col ‘cabbage.’ Various other English names for the plant show an etymological connection to Latin ērūcarucola, rucoli, roquette, (salad) rocket, and rugula. If that last seems almost familiar, it’s probably because of its better-known form in American English, arugula. Apparently that version of the word came from a dialect of Italian, as opposed to the rucola in standard Italian. Notice how standard Italian retained the k sound between vowels in ērūca, while the dialect picked up the voicing of the vowels that surrounded the k and turned it into a g sound. Spanish did the same thing as ūrūca became oruga.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Several unexpected answers

The etymology of the English word answer answers several questions about related words in English and Spanish. Answer, with its now-silent w, is descended from Old English andswaru, whose d is not only no longer pronounced but also not even retained in the current spelling. The swaru in the old form of the compound, which has become modern English swear, goes back to the Indo-European root *swer- ‘to talk, speak.’ The first element in Old English andswaru traces back to Indo-European *ant-, which meant literally ‘front, forehead,’ but which led to the notion of confronting something, which is to say turning against it. We see that sense in the Greek descendant anti, which Spanish and English (and other languages) now use as a prefix in so many words. To answer, then, is literally ‘to speak back,’ originally as a rebuttal, but then more generally ‘to respond [to an assertion or question].’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

If pigs had wings

Spanish has a lively expression that English doesn’t share, cerdo de vida. Translated literally, that would be the inexplicable ‘life pig,’ but the Diccionario de la lengua española explains that the phrase refers to a ‘cerdo que no ha cumplido un año, y no está todavía bien criado para la matanza,’ which is to say ‘a pig that is less than a year old and isn’t yet ready to be slaughtered.’ Lucky pig: in contrast, a cerdo de muerte is a ‘cerdo que ha pasado de un año, y es apto ya para la matanza,’ or ‘a pig that is more than a year old and is now ready to be slaughtered.’

The origin of cerdo is interesting. It’s based on cerda ‘bristle,’ from the fact that hogs have bristly hairs on them. Cerda had developed from Vulgar Latin *cirra ‘a tuft of hair in an animal’s mane,’ the feminine of the Latin cirrus that meant ‘lock, curl, tuft of hair’ in general and ‘the hair on the forehead of a horse’ in particular. Now you can see why meteorologists adopted cirro/cirrus as a name for ‘a type of fleecy cloud found at high altitudes.’ Some English speakers are fond of saying “If pigs had wings they would fly,” which is a roundabout but colorful way of saying that something is impossible. In terms of Spanish etymology, though, pigs are already up there in the clouds.


The previous post mentioned that Spanish and English borrowed lava from Italian, which may have acquired it from Latin lābēs ‘a fall,’ given the way lava “falls” down the side of a volcano. The Latin noun had come from the verb lābī, whose meanings included ‘to move gently along a smooth surface, to fall, slide; to slide, slip, or glide down, to fall down, to sink.’ From that verb came the adjective lābilis, meaning ‘slipping, gliding, prone to slip or slide,’ which Spanish and English have carried over as lábil/labile. The definitions given in the DRAE and the American Heritage Dictionary are, respectively:

1. Que resbala o se desliza fácilmente.
2. Frágil, caduco, débil.
3. Poco estable, poco firme en sus resoluciones.
4. Quím. Dicho de un compuesto: Inestable, que se transforma fácilmente en otro.

1. Open to change; readily changeable or unstable: labile chemical compounds; tissues with labile cell populations.
2. Fluctuating widely: labile hypertension; labile emotions.
3. Decomposing readily: the labile component of organic matter.

While you may be hard put to think of any other related words, once I point out that the past participle of Latin lābī was lāpsus, you should immediately think of lapso/lapse. (English can use lapse as a verb, but the DRAE doesn’t show a corresponding *lapsar or *lapsear.) In addition, both languages sometimes use the original Latin noun lāpsus, which may be best known in the phrase lāpsus linguae ‘a slip of the tongue.’ Less frequently seen phrases are lāpsus memoriae ‘a lapse of memory’ and, especially in the computer age, lāpsus calamī ‘a slip of the pen.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman



In a bit of versifying on my other blog recently I used the uncommon and now mostly literary English verb lave, which Spanish speakers will easily recognize as a cognate of lavar ‘to wash.’ I assumed English took the word from Old French laver, but in looking up the etymology of lave I found that the Old French verb merely reinforced an earlier borrowing, one in which Old English created the verb lafian directly from Latin lavāre. I’d also assumed that lava, the volcanic substance for which Spanish and English use the same word, was related, but The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the noun came from Italian, which may have inherited it from Latin lābēs ‘a fall,’ given the way lava “falls” down the side of a volcano. Yet another thing I learned is that Spanish has a second noun lava that is related to lavar and that engineers use to mean ‘the act of washing,’ as applied to minerals, for example.

The two etymological trails meet in a heavy-duty handwashing product that I remember from childhood and that I see still exists: Lava soap, which contains particles of the ground-up volcanic rock called pumice.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered….
—Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade


The 1913 Webster’s offered these definitions of the English word volley as a noun:
A flight of missiles, as arrows, bullets, or the like; the simultaneous discharge of a number of small arms.
A burst or emission of many things at once; as, a volley of words.
(Tennis) A return of the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) A sending of the ball full to the top of the wicket.


Used as a verb, the way Tennyson did, volley means:

To be thrown out, or discharged, at once; to be discharged in a volley, or as if in a volley.

(Tennis) To return the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) To send the ball full to the top of the wicket.

Although that dictionary mentioned tennis and cricket, it omitted volleyball, a game that had come into being in 1895 and apparently still wasn’t well-known in 1913.


English borrowed volley from French volée, a feminine past participle used as a noun. The infinitive of the verb was voler ‘to fly,’ from the Latin volāre that had also given rise to Spanish volar and Italian volare (which people of a certain age remember from the hit song of 1958). We note that Spanish has borrowed English volleyball directly as voleibol and also less directly (and never, in my experience) as balonvolea.


Where volley is an uncommon verb in English, Spanish volar ‘to fly’ is quite common. It has produced various derivatives, a few of which are:


vuelo ‘flight’ (also volada, the cognate of French volée);
voladizo ‘projecting’ (in architecture);
volador ‘flying’ (and as a noun ‘flying fish’ and ‘a type of rocket’);
volante, whose various meanings are listed here.
volear ‘to volley’ (in sports).


© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

There’s no getting out of it: there is no rage in outrage

The last post dealt in part with the short and useful English word out, but even without that priming of the pump, almost all native English speakers who are asked about the origin of the word outrage will assume it’s a compound made up of out and rage. The semantics seem strongly to support that interpretation: an outrage is behavior that goes outside the norm of decency, and people who have been the victims of outrageous behavior can understandably be filled with rage. But as the title says, there’s no getting out of it: there is no rage in outrage, nor is there any out.

The Spanish cognate of outrage, ultraje, offers insight into the true origin of the word, which is based on the Latin ultrā that meant ‘beyond,’ so an outrage goes beyond the bounds of decent behavior. The reason there’s no trace of the original l in outrage is that English took the word intact from Old French, where Latin ultrā had evolved to outre, and -age was (and still is) a standard noun-forming suffix that’s cognate to Spanish -aje. English has also more recently borrowed French outré, which means ‘eccentric, bizarre, startlingly unconventional.’

Spanish and English both have compounds with ultra- in them, like ultramarino/ultramarine, ultravioleta/ultraviolet, ultramoderno/ultramodern, and ultramontano/ultramontane. The prefix seems to be more of a living one in English than in Spanish, as evidenced by compounds like ultra-chic, ultra-picky, ultra-sexy, ultra-stupid, ultra-gross. I searched online and didn’t find an example of anyone using ultra-outré, but it’s probably only a matter of time, and until then this post might turn up if anyone else does a search for that etymologically redundant phrase.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


I recently came across the word hysteresis, in which English puts secondary stress on the first syllable and primary stress on the third. In contrast, as the written accent in histéresis tells us, Spanish stresses the second syllable. Regardless, the discrepancy in stress between the two languages should occasion no stress in us and be no cause for histeria/hysteria, a similar-looking word that is likewise of Greek origin but is otherwise unrelated. (This is a good time to remind ourselves yet again that not all that glitters is gold.)

Histéresis/hysteresis is a scientific term that means ‘the lagging of an effect behind its cause.’ Wikipedia puts it more technically: ‘Hysteresis is the time-based dependence of a system’s output on current and past inputs.’ In doing some looking, I didn’t find examples of the term in climatology, but hysteresis would seem to fit the familiar phenomenon of the seasons lagging behind the sun; for example, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest elevation at the summer solstice near the end of June, but the hottest days in the season don’t normally occur until August.

But we’re not here to discuss science. According to Wikipedia, the term hysteresis was coined around 1890 by Sir James Alfred Ewing to describe the behaviour of magnetic materials.’ Ewing took the word from ancient Greek husterēsis, which meant ‘a shortcoming.’ That word had been built on husteros, meaning ‘late,’ which the American Heritage Dictionary traces back to Indo-European *ud-tero, a comparative form of the *ud- that meant both ‘up’ and ‘out.’ Greek husteros, therefore, had originally conveyed the sense ‘farther out [in time].’

Although Indo-European *ud- seems to have left no native descendants in Latin (and therefore none in Spanish either), it produced native English out, which stands alone as a preposition and adverb, and serves as a particle in phrasal verbs like make out, figure out, get out, check out, point out, drop out. Out also appears in compounds like outlaw, outlandish, outpouring, outlier, outsized, output, and outline. Out may be short, but it’s an out-and-out useful word in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Latin paene

Sometimes a word that was common in Latin at some point in the language’s existence ended up losing currency and not continuing on into the Romance languages. One such word was paene, which meant ‘almost.’ It didn’t survive in Spanish, getting replaced by casi. Or at least it didn’t survive in its own right, but it did leave traces in compounds. An instance of that is península/peninsula, which means etymologically ‘almost an insula,’ which is to say ‘almost an island.’ Another compound is penúltimo/penultimate, literally ‘almost the ultimate,’ meaning ‘almost the last; next-to-the-last.’ In English, ultimate has added the sense of a word that it sounds somewhat similar to, utmost. Then, following a familiar development in which words gradually lose meaning, there are increasingly many people who use words like amazing, incredible, terrific, great, fantastic, unbelievable, and now ultimate, to mean simply ‘good, likable.’

That reminds me now—and you’ll see why in a moment—of an experiment that has been done with children. The experimenter pours a fixed amount of water into two differently shaped glass containers, one that’s tall and narrow, the other that’s broad and low. A child who is young enough will believe that there’s more water in the tall and narrow container than in the broad and flat one, even after watching the same amount of water poured into each. Apparently children develop a sense of comparative magnitude initially in one dimension, in this case height, and only later expand that sense into two and three dimensions.

Something of that linear sense of magnitude seems to persist in some English-speaking adults. They think that if ultimate means ‘good,’ then penultimate, which is a longer word than ultimate, must mean ‘very good’ or ‘the best.’ In fact there are people who never learned the real meaning of penultimate and for whom those are the word’s only senses. That’s a recent development, and I don’t know how widespread the usage is. Educated people consider it a mistake, and no current dictionary that I’ve looked in includes the mistaken senses of penultimate. Will the error ultimately die out? Can we hope that it’s in its penultimate year?

© 2015 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.
©2011–2015 Steven Schwartzman

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