No matter how long we inhabit our native language, there are still moments when we perceive something we’d never noticed before. One day last month I used the word tidy, and suddenly a question came to mind: might it be the case, I asked myself, that in spite of an apparent semantic mismatch, tidy comes from tide in the same morphological way that juicy obviously comes from juice and flaky from flake? I felt I was onto something because I already knew that the current meaning of tide as ‘a periodic rising and falling of the sea’ is a limited survival of the much broader senses the word used to have: ‘time; period; season.’ For example, in 1596 Edmund Spenser wrote in “Prothalamion”:

They two, forth pacing to the river’s side,
Received those two fair brides, their love’s delight;
Which, at th’ appointed tide,
Each one did make his bride….

Tidy was indeed the adjective corresponding to tide in that early sense, and the original meaning of tidy was, in the definition of the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary: ‘Being in proper time; timely; seasonable; favorable; as, tidy weather.’ From that developed the senses ‘Arranged in good order; orderly; appropriate; neat; kept in proper and becoming neatness, or habitually keeping things so; as, a tidy lass; their dress is tidy; the apartments are well furnished and tidy.’

To make a connection to Spanish, we have to go much farther back than early modern English. The American Heritage Dictionary traces tide to the Indo-European root *dā- ‘to divide,’ which we can see in the old sense of ‘season,’ which is a division of the year. The AHD finds in the suffixed Indo-European form *dā-mo‑ the possible notion of ‘division of the people,’ as reflected in ancient Greek dēmos, which meant ‘people; land.’ From that we have borrowed words like democracia/democracy ‘rule by the people’; demagogo/demagogue ‘someone who stirs up the people’; and endémico/endemic ‘occurring in a certain region.’


A demi-tasse (more often now spelled in English without the hyphen) is, in the definition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, ‘a small cup of or for black coffee served following dinner.’ English took the phrase from French, in which language the demi means ‘half’ and the tasse means the same as its Spanish cognate taza ‘cup.’ French and Spanish acquired their word for ‘cup’ from Arabic tasht ‘basin,’ but that noun had come into Arabic from Persian. The American Heritage Dictionary points out the similarity of a word in Avestan (the eastern dialect of Old Iranian), tashta, which meant ‘cup, bowl.’

Where a demi-tasse is small, the Spanish augmentative tazón is ‘a bowl’ or ‘a large cup.’

 © 2016 Steven Schwartzman

There is no cut in cutlet

It’s tempting to think that a cutlet gets its name from the fact that you cut it with a knife as you eat it, but by that logic many other kinds of food could be called cutlets as well. No, the resemblance to cut is fortuitous (which doesn’t mean ‘fortunate,’ with which the word is increasingly confused, but ‘happening by chance’). English took cutlet from French côtelette, the modern s-less version of Old French costelette, the diminutive of the coste that meant ‘rib.’ It came from Latin costa, which is the source of the Spanish word for ‘rib’, costilla. The -illa ending shows that that Spanish noun is a compound, but Latin costa also evolved directly into the Spanish cuesta that means ‘a slope.’ At the same time, Spanish has turned to Galician or Catalan for the doublet costa, just as English turned to Old French for coast. Spanish also has costado ‘side,’ with the semantic connection being that the coast is metaphorically the side or ribs of the land. In fact even in Roman times costa could mean not just ‘rib’ but also by extension ‘side, wall.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The Latin word culcita, which meant ‘cushion, mattress,’ is the source of Spanish colcha, which preserves the ancient senses. The original Latin noun also evolved to Old French coi(l)te, whose Anglo-Norman counterpart became English quilt.

The Medieval Latin phrase culcita pūncta, literally ‘stitched quilt,’ became Old French coultepointe, but then under the influence of contre ‘against’ was altered to contrepointe. That passed into Middle English as countrepoint. Then another alteration took place, this time to the second element, and the result was counterpane, whose meaning is still ‘bedspread.’  Perhaps you’ve encountered counterpane in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane,” which you’ll find below.

One more word that English acquired from Latin culcita is quoit, which we use in the plural, quoits, as the name of a game akin to horseshoes. That game was originally played with flat stones that people must have thought looked like little cushions.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,   
I had two pillows at my head,   
And all my toys beside me lay   
To keep me happy all the day.   
And sometimes for an hour or so     
I watched my leaden soldiers go,   
With different uniforms and drills,   
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;   
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets   
All up and down among the sheets;  
Or brought my trees and houses out,   
And planted cities all about.   
I was the giant great and still   
That sits upon the pillow-hill,   
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane. 

— Robert Louis Stevenson



For at least the past decade, a typical speaker of English—especially a young one—has used the adjective incredible to describe something that the person likes or considers good. In the quantitative rather than qualitative realm, incredible can mean ‘much,’ and the corresponding adverb incredibly now most often functions in a similar way to mean ‘very.’ For example, a few hours after I prepared this post I came across an editorial in the daily newspaper that spoke about residents of east Austin “who have lived for generations in an area with incredible diversity.”

Compare the blandness of those usages to the definition of incredible in the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary: ‘Not credible; surpassing belief; too extraordinary and improbable to admit of belief; unlikely; marvelous; fabulous.’ For better or worse, the loss in strength of a word is not incredible, but a kind of attrition often observed in historical linguistics.

English incredible and Spanish increíble both trace back to Latin incrēdibilis, a compound that prefixes in- ‘not’ to the root of the verb crēdere, the forerunner of Spanish creer ‘to believe.’ From the same root we have crédulo/credulous, which the 1913 Webster’s defined as: ‘Apt to believe on slight evidence; easily imposed upon; unsuspecting.’ The negative, incrédulo/incredulous, describes a person ‘who is unwilling or unable to believe something.’ The DRAE‘s definition is ‘Que no cree con facilidad y a la ligera.’ Of course there’s no reason for you to be incrédulo/incredulous about the contents of this eminently credible post. You’re incredibly fortunate to have found it among the other incredible entries in this blog.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


Today being the 11th of December, let me point out that 11 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 instance, 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 11, 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

•    •    •    •    •
•    •    •    •    •

(That last dot can also serve as the period at the end of the previous sentence.) No, the only possible arrangement for 11 is

•    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

In other words, all the dots end up in the first—and only—row. That’s one way of explaining why such a number is called primo/prime, from the Latin word for ‘first,’ primus. Historically, the ancient Greeks had the notion that the primes are first in importance, the fundamental type of whole number. The composites were 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 (by addition) of every other number.

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.


For more about the English word eleven and its not-at-all-obvious connection to something in Spanish, see last year’s post “The hidden one in once and eleven.”

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

A gem of a word

At its most literal, Spanish yema means a ‘bud or shoot of a plant.’ By analogy, Spanish speakers added in humans the sense ‘fingertip’ and in animals more generally the sense ‘yolk of an egg.’ That last meaning was further abstracted to ‘candy made from the yolk of an egg.’

Spanish yema developed predictably enough from Latin gemma, one sense of which was ‘bud.’ By a different analogy from any that Spanish followed, the Romans extended the notion of ‘bud’ to that of ‘precious stone, jewel,’ a meaning that English borrowed when it transformed gemma into gem.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


In my other blog last month a commenter from Spain used the verb merodear. I didn’t know it, but by the context I figured that it was probably the cognate of English maraud, and when I checked I found I was right. Both Spanish and English took the word from French, but apparently from different versions. The standard French verb is marauder, based on the noun maraud that means ‘vagabond, robber, thief, stealer.’ Spanish took its word from a dialectal form, and that accounts for the different first vowel.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Spanish otoño developed from Latin autumnus, which simultaneously evolved to Old French autompne, with an intrusive p. Middle English borrowed that as autumpne, but modern French automne and modern English autumn show that both languages ended up rejecting the non-etymological p.

Speaking of autumn, I recently came across a quotation attributed on many websites to the French writer Albert Camus. Versions that I’ve seen are:

“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.”
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
“Fall is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.”
“Fall is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

I got curious about the presumed French original, so I searched online and found various occurrences of “L’automne est un deuxième printemps où chaque feuille est une fleur.” [But then I also found this, which seems to have been (incorrectly) translated back into French from English: “L’automne est un deuxième ressort où chaque feuille est une fleur.” The problem with it is that ressort, like the resorte that Spanish has borrowed from it, is the kind of spring (in English) that is a metal coil, not the kind of spring that is a season.]

I searched for a good while but didn’t find a single hit, including those from printed books, that said in what work or on what occasion Camus made the statement about autumn. In the past, when I’ve come across a widely disseminated quotation that is attributed to a certain person, but never with any further source, the quotation has usually turned out to be bogus in any of several ways:

There’s no evidence that the person who is claimed to have made the statement actually made it.
Someone else made the statement.
Someone else made the statement first, and the claimed person was merely repeating or paraphrasing it.
The person who made the statement remains unknown.
The person to whom the statement is attributed did express that thought, but the quoted wording has been changed from the original.

Eventually, in spite of my skepticism, I did track down the quotation about autumn and spring and found that it’s correctly attributed to Albert Camus. It turned out to be from his 1944 play Le malentendu (The Misunderstanding), but the original is slightly different from the widely quoted version. In the play, the character Martha asks “Qu’est-ce que l’automne?” (“What is autumn?”). The character Jan replies: “Un deuxième printemps, où toutes les feuilles sont comme des fleurs.” (“A second spring, when the leaves are like flowers.”) The widely quoted version not only gloms the two sentences together but also drops the word comme (like) and the comma before it, thereby turning the original simile into a metaphor.

Although I didn’t find any earlier instance of the idea that autumn leaves are like flowers, my searching did turn up a couple of antecedents for the notion that autumn is a second spring. The first was in a British periodical called The Spectator. The issue of August 30, 1929 carried a one-paragraph article by W. Beach Thomas called “Autumn or Spring?”

Every botanist knows that autumn is a second spring, a time of germination and growth as well as of decay. Birds, too, feel this springlike sense. I had a suggestive example this week. On the evening of August 26th the thrushes sang loudly in the garden after many weeks of silence. Everyone noticed the suddenness and fullness of their lyrical outburst. The next morning we all said, ‘This is the first day of autumn.’ The peculiar scent of autumn was in the air. Almost always there is a clear and obvious first of autumn, a day when things are different and the hottest sun, or the most gorgeous roses, cannot deceive you into the belief that summer is present. A new season has begun; and almost the best in England. It is quite the best—and by a large margin—at the nearest point across the Atlantic. If you want to taste autumn’s perfection, or at any rate relative perfection, the place to go to is Newfoundland, where along with a delicious air you may enjoy a supreme glory of colouring, especially in the low berry bushes, that everywhere prevail.”

The second antecedent was in the book Cours de Philosophie Générale (Course in General Philosophy), by H. Azaïs, published in Paris in 1824 by Auguste Boulland et Cie. A passage about the molting of birds—again, birds—on page 233 of Volume 5 includes this:

…l’automne est un second printemps, moins fécond néanmoins….
…autumn is a second spring, though a less fecund one….

And from this autumn of life let me close with a bit of irony. My memory may be less fecund than it once was, because when I finally came across the reference to Camus’s play Le malentendu, I didn’t remember what it was about. I looked at an online plot summary and suddenly realized that I had read the entire play in the original French about 50 years ago in a drama class, but I had almost no recollection of it, including its thought that autumn is a second spring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Due to differences in pronunciation and meaning, few native English speakers recognize that the verb behave is a compound of have. To behave is ‘to “have” yourself in a certain way,’ which is to say ‘to “hold” yourself in a certain way,’ which is to say ‘to comport yourself in a certain way.’ The failure to recognize the connection between behave and have is a sin of omission, but the widely held assumption that English have is a cognate of Spanish haber is a sin of commission: it’s a “sin” because there is no etymological connection between the two words, in spite of their similar appearance and meaning.

As proof, we remind ourselves of Indo-European sound correspondences. In particular, an initial h- in native English words corresponds to an initial c- (representing a k sound) in Latin words. For example, Latin cord- (and therefore the suffixed Spanish corazón) is the cognate of English heart, and English head is the cognate of Latin caput (which is why the capital is the “head” city of a state or country). Candidates for a Latin cognate of English have are limited to words beginning with c-, and the right one turns out to be Latin capere, which meant ‘to take, seize, grasp, grab hold of.’ While the semantics aren’t exact, the connection is that in order to have something we must literally or figuratively take hold of it.

So now the question is whether Latin capere left a Spanish descendant (which would therefore be the cognate of English have). That descendant turns out to be the verb caber, which has undergone a further change in meaning to ‘to fit.’ Something of that sense was already present in Latin capere, whose secondary meanings included ‘assume, adopt, contain, take in,’ and especially ‘to be large enough for.’

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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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