Re: re-

Who could pass up a title like today’s? The re before the colon means ‘with regard to, in the matter of,’ and it introduces the subject of today’s post, which is the unrelated prefix re-. That prefix existed in Latin, where it added the sense ‘(back) again’ to a verb. Both Spanish and English have many verbs beginning with re-, as you can easily verify by looking at the re- section in a dictionary of either language. Sometimes, from the notion of ‘over and over again,’ the re- conveys the sense ‘very,’ as in Spanish resabido ‘well-known’ and English renowned, which is etymologically ‘very much named.’

Spanish inherited re- directly from Latin, but in English the borrowed prefix re- is also a living one, meaning that it can be applied to existing verbs, including those of Anglo-Saxon or other non-Latin origin, to make new compounds. For example, a soldier can re-up, meaning ‘reenlist,’ in the army. Someone can blog and someone else can reblog. At the same time, there’s still occasionally—and unpredictably—resistance to using the Latin-derived prefix re- with an English verb of long standing: although English says redo, recall, and remake, it doesn’t say *resit, *refeel, *rebe, or *rego.

Sometimes we can remove the re- from what is etymologically a compound and be left with a verb that exists on its own. For instance, Spanish has resurgir and surgir, reproducir and producir, rellenar and llenar, rehacer and hacer, rematar and matar. Even in pairs like those, however, the semantics may be somewhat different, as in matar ‘to kill’ but rematar ‘to finish off.’ In plenty of other cases, however, removing re- from a verb leaves something that’s not a real verb. We have resistir/resist but not *sistir/*sist, retaliar/retailate but not *taliar/*taliate.

The situation is even more complicated than what I’ve outlined here, but this gives you the basic story. You can rechazar or reject it if you like, but while you might somehow make the case that you could chazar it in Spanish, you certainly can’t *ject it in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Something to cheer about

Yes, here’s something for lovers of Spanish-English word connections to cheer about: English got the word cheer from Old French chiere, which had developed from Late Latin cara. That’s the same cara that has continued on into Spanish and that means ‘face.’ Just think of cheer as putting on a happy face and you’ve got the idea.

Late Latin, by the way, borrowed cara from Greek kara, which meant ‘head.’ That noun had come from the Indo-European root *ker- that signified both ‘head’ and ‘horn.’ We find that second sense in the native English descendant horn and the native Latin descendant cornū, the predecessor of Spanish cuerno. There’s one more thing you can toot your horn and be cheerful about.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Spanish summer is etymologically out of whack

The previous post about primavera ‘spring’ discussed the word’s development as a feminine version of Late Latin primo vero ‘in the first part of the spring.’ The original Latin ver ‘spring’ must have extended into what we now call ‘summer,’ a fact that further justifies the felt need to distinguish the first part of that extended period from the latter part. For those later and hotter months, Vulgar Latin began to use the phrase veranum tempus, where tempus meant ‘time, season,’ and veranum was the adjective corresponding to ver ‘spring.’ Eventually, as happens often enough, the adjective alone came to carry the full semantic weight of the original phrase, with the result that the Spanish verano. came to be a word for ‘summer,’ or at least a part of it at first. In Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española, Guido Gómes de Silva explains: “…en español, hasta el siglo XVI, la palabra primavera denotaba el principio de la primavera; verano, el final de la primavera y el principio del verano; y estío, el fin del verano.” Since then, estío and verano have become synonyms.

As an adjective corresponding to the new summery sense of verano, Spanish couldn’t use vernal, which stayed associated with the early part of the spring–summer continuum, so Spanish speakers created veraniego ‘pertaining to the summer.’ Because the heat during the hottest months can be debilitating, veraniego has added the sense ‘becoming sickly or mentally unstable in the summer.’ From verano Spanish has also created the one-letter-different verbs veranar ‘to spend the summer [anywhere]’ and veranear ‘to take a summer vacation away from home,’ as well as the noun veraneo ‘a summer vacation.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Primavera and spring

Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.

Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.

Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Only an advanced learner of Spanish is likely to know the noun hito, which has various meanings: ‘a milestone or boundary post; a landmark; something or someone that is key or fundamental; a target; the game of quoits.’ Some of those things seem related, but English speakers will have a hard time thinking of any related words in their language.  The first clue to the origin of hito is the initial h-, which we know often resulted from an initial f- in Latin, and indeed that was the case here. In fact hito evolved from Latin fictus, an old past participle of the verb fīgere, in whose whose later past participle fixus we recognize fijo/fixed. A milestone and a boundary post are fixed in the ground, as is the post in the game of quoits, as were simple posts that people used as targets to shoot at. A landmark and something key are extended senses of ‘being fixed’ and therefore ‘stable, secure.’

Speaking of extended senses, the English verb fix originally meant (and still means) ‘to place securely,’ but from the fact that broken things are often repaired by reattaching and fastening loose parts, fix has taken on in American English the primary meaning ‘to repair.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Perhaps a hidden threeness

I had occasion the other day to look up the origin of English tress and found that there are various theories. What’s known is that English took the word from Old French tresse. That noun meant ‘a braid of hair,’ a sense that English tress still has, although the American Heritage Dictionary marks it archaic. The modern sense of tress, as given in the Oxford Dictionaries, is ‘a long lock of a woman’s hair.’

But back to the origin of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary says that Old French might have inherited tresse from Vulgar Latin *trichia, tricia ‘a rope, braid,’ which the Romans had taken from Greek trikhiā ‘a rope,’ based on  thrix or trikh- ‘hair.’ The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française offers that hypothesis and a couple of others. One, proposed by Gamillscheg, would go back to Frankish *thréhja, from the same root as Germanic words having to do with turning (and possibly related to Latin torquere). Another theory, proposed tentatively by Corominas, sees the Old French word as a relative of Spanish trenzar, which would have arisen from the Latin verb tertiāre, based on tertius ‘third.’ The semantic connection, of course, is that hair is typically braided into three strands, each of which makes up a third of a braid. As for Spanish trenzar, the DRAE follows the same semantic line and reconstructs a phonetically dictated Vulgar Latin *trinitiāre, which would have been based on Latin trīni ‘three each.’

In summary, it’s unclear whether Spanish trenza and English tress are cognates or merely one more pair of etymologically unrelated words, like día and day, that coincidentally (but strikingly) sound similar and mean the same thing.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

A drop in the gutta

In a blog post in March, in connection with two photographs of fungi, nature photographer Steve Gingold introduced the biological term guttation, which he explained as ‘sweat-like moisture.’ Based on the context and the root of that fancy word, Spanish speakers may well make the connection to gota ‘drop,’ and they would be right to do so. Spanish gota derives from Latin gutta, which also meant ‘drop,’ and which architects have fancifully borrowed to mean (in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary) ‘one of a series of small ornaments in the shape of truncated cones used on a Doric entablature.’ Pharmacists also use gutta, this time literally—they can’t afford to mess around when preparing medicines, can they?—to mean ‘a drop.’

For English speakers who drop an r at the end of a syllable, Latin gutta sounds a lot like English gutter, and it should. English acquired the word from Old French gotier, based on gote (modern French goutte): a gutter is a trough to channel drops of rain coming off a roof.

Turning back to Spanish, we note that gotear means ‘to drip,’ a goteo is ‘a dripping,’ and a gotera is ‘a leak, drip, trickle.’ Less obviously related semantically, at least until the connection gets pointed out, is the verb agotar ‘to exhaust, use up, run out of.’ The etymological sense, as should be clear now, is ‘to drip away.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Taking refuge in etymology

The last post dealt with a few descendants of the Latin verb fugere ‘to flee’ and the noun fuga ‘the act of fleeing,’ so let’s continue. ‘A person who flees’ is a fugitivo/fugitive. Another offshoot is refugio/refuge, which is etymologically ‘[a place] to flee back [to].’ English has a doublet in Latin refugium, which is a biological term for (in the definition of the Oxford Dictionaries) ‘An area in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions, especially glaciation.’

There are other “fleeful” scientific relatives. A centrifugio/centrifuge is ‘a machine that spins and causes a substance placed within it to literally ‘flee the center.’ A febrifugio/febrifuge is ‘a medicine that causes a fever to flee,’ so to speak; a vermifugio/vermifuge does likewise for parasitic worms in the intestines. A calcifuga/calcifuge is ‘a plant that doesn’t grow well in calcium-rich soil.’

English calls ‘a person who flees in search of a refuge’ a refugee, while Spanish took the equivalent prófugo from a different compound of Latin fugere. With yet another prefix—Latin subter, whose literal meaning was ‘beneath’ and whose extended sense was ‘secretly’—we have subterfugio/subterfuge. The 1913 Webster’s defined the word as: ‘That to which one resorts for escape or concealment; an artifice employed to escape censure or the force of an argument, or to justify opinions or conduct; a shift; an evasion.’ Politician, thy name is Subterfuge.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The famous writer O. Henry (who coincidentally called Austin home for several years) wrote a sad short story called “The Furnished Room,” which begins: “Restless, shifting, fugacious as time itself is a certain vast bulk of the population of the red brick district of the lower West Side.” Many English speakers won’t recognize the fancy word fugacious, but Spanish speakers see the similarity to the fugaz that is their less-hoity-toity cognate. Based on the Latin noun fuga ‘the act of fleeing,’ the Latin adjective fugax, with stem fugac-, is the source of the synonymous  fugaz/fugacious that means ‘of short duration, fleeting, not lasting.’

Classical music has adopted Latin fuga, which French and therefore English have turned into fugue, as the name of ‘a musical form in which a melody appears in one voice and then “flees” successively to other voices.’ From the root of fuga Latin created the verb fugere ‘to flee.’ That became fugīre in Vulgar Latin, and then, given the peculiar transformation of an initial f to h that marked the development of Spanish, evolved to Spanish huir. To replace the original Latin fuga, Spanish has adopted the feminine past participle of huir as the noun huida that means ‘an act of fleeing; flight.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman



One afternoon I was checking the DRAE to see if Spanish might have a relative of the French word riquiqui that means ‘teensy, itty-bitty, very small.’ I didn’t find one, but in the process of looking I was led to the Spanish word quinqui, which the DRAE defines as a ‘persona que pertenece a cierto grupo social marginado de la sociedad por su forma de vida,’ which is to say a ‘person who belongs to a certain social group marginalized by [the greater] society because of its lifestyle.’ If that still doesn’t ring a bell, all you have to do is look at English kinky to see where Spanish got its word.

The social sense of quinqui is one of two conveyed by English kinky, and it’s a figurative one. The literal meaning is ‘tightly curled or twisted,’ with the -y ending making an adjective out of the noun kink, whose meanings include ‘a bend, twist curl; a muscle spasm; a flaw; a whim; an eccentric idea; a bizarre or unconventional sexual practice.’

Although kink sounds as if it could be a native English word, English borrowed it from Dutch, where it meant ‘a twist in a rope.’

© 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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