On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, let’s look at the word Normandía/Normandy. It’s the name of the region in northwest France where the ancestors of the normandos/Normans settled in the second half of the 9th century. And who were those ancestors? Etymologically, Norman is just ‘north man.’ In particular, the north in question was Scandinavia, so the invading North men were Vikings. Once again etymology gives an insight into history.

For a more common Spanish word in which Germanic man appears, you can check out a post from 2014. And we should add that Spanish acquired norte via Old French from Old English.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman

Paludismo and malaria

Spanish has two words for ‘malaria,’ one of them being malaria itself, which English shares. That noun originated in Italian, and if translated directly into Spanish it would have come out *malaire, which is to say ‘bad air.’ People once thought that “bad air” caused the disease.

The other Spanish word for ‘malaria’ is paludismo, which English once shared in the form paludism. This term was based on Latin palus, with stem palud-, which meant ‘marsh, swamp’ and is the source of the uncommon Spanish noun palude that means ‘lagoon, pond, pool.’ The connection, of course, is that malaria-spreading mosquitos thrive in places with still, fresh water. From the same Latin word, English (but apparently not Spanish) has paludal and the less common paludine and paludinous, all of which mean ‘having to do with a swamp or marsh.’ Similarly, something ‘growing or living in swamps or marshes’ is paludose. Spanish palúdico can mean ‘having to do with swamps or marshes’ as well as ‘suffering from malaria.’

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman


For an English-speaking student learning Spanish, arena is a so-called false friend, a word that looks the same or similar in another language but which means something different. The large Webster’s of 1913 gave the first definition of arena as one pertaining to ancient Rome: ‘The area in the central part of an amphitheater, in which the gladiators fought and other shows were exhibited; — so called because it was covered with sand.’ And of course ‘sand’ is the sense that arena has for a Spanish speaker, and that the identical Latin original had. Interestingly, the third definition in Webster’s was a medical one: ‘”Sand” or “gravel” in the kidneys.’ While it’s not clear that that usage has continued, modern medicine does deal with something called an arenavirus. Here’s an extended definition: ‘One of a family of viruses called Arenaviridae whose members are generally associated with diseases transmitted by rodents to humans. Each arenavirus is usually associated with a particular rodent host species in which it is maintained. Arenavirus infections are relatively common in humans in some areas of the world and can cause severe illnesses. The virus particles are spherical and have an average diameter of 110-130 nanometers. All are enveloped in a lipid (fat) membrane. Viewed in cross-section they show grainy particles that are ribosomes acquired from their host cells. It is this characteristic that gave them their name, derived from the Latin “arena,” which means “sandy.”‘ Well, not quite: the writer confused the adjective sandy for the noun sand. Just goes to show that experts in the medical arena aren’t always experts in the language arena.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman


The Spanish word cubeta has meanings that include ‘bucket, cask’ and ‘tray,’ particularly the kind of ‘ice tray’ found in the freezer compartment of a refrigerator and the kinds of trays used to hold chemicals. Cubeta is a diminutive of the cuba ‘tub, barrel, vat’ that had changed little from the Latin cūpa that likewise meant ‘tub, cask.’ Whether cūpa generated the Late Latin cuppa that Spanish has turned into copa and English into cup is possible but not universally accepted. What isn’t in doubt is that Spanish cubeta has as its cognate the French cuvette that English borrowed in the sense of ‘a tube or vessel used in laboratory experiments.’ Another diminutive tracing back to Latin cūpa is the dome-shaped cúpula/cupola that sits atop some buildings.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman


Galardón may deserve a galardón, i.e. ‘a reward, a recompense,’ for having changed so much from its ultimate source. Formerly gualardón, the word was borrowed, or more accurately garbled, from a Germanic form like *withralaun, which meant ‘recompense.’ To find the corresponding English term, we begin with the Old High German cognate widarlōn, a compound of widar ‘back, against,’ and lōn ‘reward.’ The first part is a cognate of native English with, which preserves its original sense in verbs like withhold and withstand and in a statement like “He got so angry at his boss that he fought with him.” Medieval Latin adopted the Old High German term as widerdōnum, with the change from l to d due to influence from Latin dōnum ‘gift.’ Old French borrowed the Latin word and ended up phonetically simplifying it to guerdon, which then passed into English. Granted, guerdon is an uncommon word and rarely found outside old or old-fashioned writing.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Careening from carena to keel

When posting about an American snout butterfly recently, I gave its scientific name: Libythaena carinenta. Later I wondered whether that species name might have been based on Latin carīna, meaning ‘keel.’ I still don’t know the answer, but I separately assumed Spanish would have inherited the Latin noun, and in fact it did, in the slightly different form carena. However, Spanish carena doesn’t mean ‘the keel itself of a ship’ but rather, in a definition from the DRAE, ‘parte sumergida del casco de un buque,’ the submerged part of a ship’s hull.’ It can also mean ‘the repair of a ship’s hull to make it watertight.’

That Spanish carena looks a lot like English careen is not just a coincidence. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the English word comes from the French phrase (en) carène ‘(on) the keel,’ whose main word came from carene, which Old French had borrowed from Old Italian carena, from the original Latin carīna. Careen originated as a nautical term with the sense ‘to incline to one side, or lie over, as a ship when sailing on a wind.’ Another nautical sense is ‘to cause (a vessel) to lean over so that she floats on one side, leaving the other side out of water and accessible for repairs below the water line.’ From the first nautical meaning came the regular English senses ‘to lurch or sway violently from side to side’ and ‘to move swiftly in a controlled or an uncontrolled way.’

If Spanish carena doesn’t mean ‘keel’ per se, how does Spanish say that? The word happens to be quilla, which might make you think Spanish had borrowed the term from English. Actually Spanish took it from French quille. It turns out that both the English and French versions trace back to the Old Norse word for ‘keel,’ kjölr. Those Vikings careened from place to place, no question about it.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

T-shirts, I-beams, and decussation

It’s not unusual to refer to an object using a letter of the alphabet whose shape resembles that object. Maybe the most familiar example is the T-shirt. Spanish uses different words for that item in different countries, with camiseta probably being the most widespread. Still, Spanish speakers in the United States do often say T-shirt, and according to Wikipedia so do speakers in Panama, presumably because of the long presence of Americans in the Panama Canal Zone. Some T-shirts, by the way, have a V-neck, which Spanish apparently refers to as escote en V.

When it comes to the I-beam, whose cross section gives a capital I with cross strokes at the top and bottom, Spanish says viga en I and also, according to the Diccionario de Arquitectura y Construcción, viga de doble T, where we have to imagine a capital T superimposed on an upside down one.

And what about the decussation, for which Spanish similarly has decusación, in the title of this post? First a definition: in anatomy, a decussation is ‘a crossing of bands of nerve fibers in the brain or spinal cord.’ The term is taken straight from Latin decussātiō, with stem decussātiōn-. The American Heritage Dictionary says that noun was based on decussus, which meant ‘the number ten’ and ‘the intersection of two lines.’ The connection is that the Romans used their letter X to represent the number ten, and that letter consists of two crossing line segments. For more about decussation itself, you’re welcome to follow up with a Wikipedia article.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman


A fair number of Spanish nouns ending in j followed by a or o developed from Latin or Late Latin diminutives. One of those is the word for ‘sheep,’ oveja. It evolved from Late Latin ovicula, a diminutive of Latin ovis ‘sheep.’ Based on that, we have the adjective ovino/ovine, meaning ‘of or pertaining to or like sheep’ (compare bovino/bovine for cattle).

If we go back to Indo-European, we find that the root for ‘sheep’ was *owi– (and remember that the Romans pronounced the letter v as a in ovis). From that Indo-European root came native English ewe ‘female sheep.’

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman


English and Spanish have both found a home for the French word atelier, which means ‘an artist’s or craftsman’s studio,’ but Spanish outdid English by also creating from atelier the doublet taller, whose meanings have expanded to include ‘workshop, garage, repair shop’ and even ‘seminar.’

So where did French atelier come from? The Old French form had been astelier, and the meaning back then was ‘a carpenter’s shop.’ A carpenter works in wood, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that astelier had been formed from the Old French astele that meant ‘splinter’: a carpenter was ‘a splinterer.’ At this point, we recognize Old French astele as the cognate of the synonymous Spanish astilla. The Old Spanish form had been astiella, which developed from Late Latin astella, a reworking of the Latin astula that also meant ‘a splinter.’

But wait: Spanish has not only the doublets atelier and taller, but also from Old French astelier the triplet astillero, which is ‘a shipyard.’ Until the mid-1800s, of course, all ships were made of wood, and shipbuilders were carpenters.

Corresponding to the Spanish proverb “Tal palo, tal astilla,” which conveys the idea that a splinter is like the wood it came from, English speaks of “a chip off the old block,” with the block standing in for a father and the chip being his son.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman




The word lunicidio/lunicide means ‘a killing of the moon’—or at least that’s what it would mean if it existed. Spanish speakers recognize that luna is ‘the moon,’ just as it had been in Latin, and even English speakers are familiar with luna from astronomy and from the adjective lunar, which Spanish shares. Several posts here in the first year of this blog dealt with luna.

The suffix -cidio/-cide—familiar from compounds like suicidio/suicide, fratricidio/fratricide, and homicidio/homicide—derives from the Latin verb caedere that meant ‘to strike, cut, cut down down,’ and often ‘to kill.’ The ‘strike’ sense led, starting with the Latin past participle caesus, adding a suffix, and evolving through Old French, to English chisel. From the past participle of a Latin compound we have the kind of tooth called an incisivo/incisor; a surgical cut is an incisión/incision. The Latin compound praecīdere ‘to shorten’ has given us preciso/precise.

© 2018 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.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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