Footloose in the Antipodes

I was recently looking at a blog by a woman in Australia who enjoys hiking, and a would-be title for a post popped into my head: “Footloose in the Antipodes.” For inhabitants of Europe and North America, the Antipodes (note the capital letter) are Australia and New Zealand. More generally, antipodes (note the lower case) are two places opposite each other on the globe. Spanish similarly has antípoda, whose written accent coincidentally tells us that the four-syllable English antipodes is likewise stressed on its second syllable. In terms of semantics, however, Spanish antípoda, according to the DRAE, ‘Se dice de cualquier habitante del globo terrestre con respecto a otro que more en lugar diametralmente opuesto,’ so the Spanish word refers to the inhabitants of opposite places rather than to the places themselves. A little more loosely, the adjective antípoda can mean ‘que se contrapone totalmente a alguien o algo,’ which English might translate as ‘contrarian.’ In fact the DRAE explains that the adverbial phrase en los (or las) antípodas means ‘en lugar o posición radicalmente opuesta o contraria.’

In terms of etymology, antípoda/antipodes comes via Latin from the plural of Greek antipous, a compound meaning ‘opposite feet.’ I know, it would take a bowlegged giant standing astride our earthly globe for the geographical meaning to make sense, but we’ll have to cut the ancient Greeks some slack. We’ll also have to point out that Greek pous was the cognate of Latin pes (and therefore Spanish pie) as well as native English foot, with all of them descended from the Indo-European root *ped- that meant ‘foot.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

подсолнечник Максимилиана

Hold your horses, pardner (as people in old American westerns used to say), this really is a post in the Spanish-English Word Connections blog. Recently I noticed that on my other blog, which deals with nature photography, the query подсолнечник Максимилиана (podsolnechnik Maksimiliana) on a search engine had brought someone to a post of mine showing a Maximilian sunflower.

Let’s look at that first Russian word, подсолнечник. The -ник (-nik) at the end is a suffix, familiar to some of you from Russian or Russian-imitated words like sputnik, peacenik, kibbutznik, and beatnik. The под (pod-) is a prefix that means ‘under.’ The heart of подсолнечник comes from the Russian word солнце (solntse), which means ‘sun,’ and in which Spanish speakers can pick out their native cognate for ‘sun,’ sol. Astronomically minded English speakers recognize the capitalized Sol, which this time is Latin, as the name of the sun when it’s treated as the center of the solar system we live in.

The American Heritage Dictionary goes back farther and traces the Latin noun to the Indo-European root for ‘sun,’ *sāwel-. In the Germanic languages that final consonant shifted to another one with approximately the same point of articulation in the mouth, so that the native English cognate of Latin (and Spanish) sol is sun. English uses sun as the name of a pagan god to name Sunday (and similarly does for all its day names), while Spanish has changed its two weekend day names to make them non-pagan.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

ten and ten times ten

The Spanish word ciento, which gets shortened to cien before a noun, means ‘a hundred.’ The synonymous Latin original was centum, whose cent- corresponds to the hund- in the native English cognate hundred (with the -red developing from a Germanic root that meant ‘reckoning, number,’ senses similar to those of the apparent Latin cognate ratio).

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Latin centum, which was pronounced kentum, had developed from Indo-European *dkm-tom, whose first element led to Latin decem and Spanish diez as well as English ten. It’s not clear what sense the Indo-European suffix -tom conveyed in its own right, but the compound *dkm-tom ultimately came to mean ‘ten groups of ten.’§ As for form, the d of *dkm-tom was eventually lost, and the -kmt- of the remainder went on to produce Latin cent(um) and English hund(red).

The Modern Latin phrase per centum ‘for [each] hundred’ has become Spanish por ciento. English originally borrowed the Latin phrase in full, then began abbreviating it per cent., with a period to show that cent. was indeed an abbreviation. Only in the early part of the 20th century—another derivative, like Spanish centuria, of Latin centum—did English drop the period, writing at first per cent, then the combined percent that is the usual current form.

The French descendant of Latin centum is cent, which Americans have adopted as a monetary unit worth one one-hundredth of a dollar. The analog in Spanish-speaking countries is the centavo, or in some countries the centésimo.

§ On that score, I have to report that one day in the early 1970s I was in a supermarket on Long Island and overheard a nearby woman tell her daughter that ten times ten is a hundred, which is true enough, and that a hundred times a hundred is a thousand, which is not. Etymology could have ridden to the rescue there, because Germanic *thūs-hundi‑, the ancestor of English thousand, meant ‘a swollen hundred,’ which is to say ‘ten times a hundred.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

The suffix -ez in Spanish family names

In common Spanish family names like González and Sánchez, the -ez ending originally meant ‘of,’ or more specifically ‘descendant (and especially son) of.’ The relationship is clearer in the old spelling -es, which is sometimes still used, as in the Gonzales that coexists with González. It’s clearer etymologically because many Latin nouns took an -is ending when they were put in the genitive (possessive) case. For example, with the name Caesar, the form Caesaris meant ‘of Caesar’ or ‘Caesar’s.’ In fact the ‘s in that second English translation is a native cognate of the Latin genitive ending (something I wish high school Latin teachers knew and would point out to students).

In any event, Gonzales started out meaning ‘Gonzalo’s [son].’ In the case of Jiménez or Ximenes, as it used to be spelled, the original sense was similarly ‘Ximeno’s [son].’ (The x in Spanish words like this used to be pronounced the same as English sh.) Guido Gómez de Silva, who himself has one of those family names ending in -ez and is therefore descended from someone named Gome, notes that Ximeno may have been a Spanish rendering of the Hebrew name Shimeon or Shimon, now standardized as Simón and Simeón. As for Sánchez, it means ‘descendant of Sancho,’ a name we recognize from Don Quixote’s big-bellied sidekick Sancho Panza.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

tuna, take 2

The previous post discussed the tuna that English took from Spanish as the name of the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, so it’s natural enough to wonder about the other tuna in English, the one for the type of fish that Spanish calls atún. Just like the cactus-related tuna, the one for the fish also passed from Spanish to English, though this time with a change in form, with the a getting transferred from the beginning of the word to its end. And just as with the name of the cactus fruit, Spanish took the name of the fish from another language, but this time it was from Arabic at-tūn, where the first part of the term is an assimilated form of the Arabic definite article.

Unlike the previous case, though, the language from which Spanish borrowed wasn’t the originator or even the first borrower of the word: Arabic had gotten it from Latin thunnus, which the Romans had taken from Greek thunnos. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Latin word gave rise to Old Provençal ton, which in turn generated French thon and Italian tonno. Those are the sources of the alternate English form tunny, which is used primarily in Britain.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The previous post, about cacto/cactus, concluded with a picture showing the spines of a cactus commonly called a prickly pear. At the right of that photograph, and mostly out of the frame, was a bright red object that is the “pear” of the prickly pear, a fruit that Spanish calls a tuna. Here’s a better look at one:

Prickly Pear Cactus Tuna from Side 6057

When Europeans explored the New World, naturally they came across many plants and animals that they hadn’t seen before. Sometimes they named them by recycling or modifying familiar words from home, as when English speakers called this cactus fruit a prickly pear. At other times Europeans adopted the names used by native peoples, with allowances made, of course, for the limits of phonology in the borrowing language. Tuna happens to be a word that Spanish borrowed from the Taíno languages of the Caribbean, and now English has taken it from Spanish. These cactus fruits are now available in many supermarkets across the United States, but the Taíno languages have become extinct.

Even if those languages no longer exist, some familiar words in Spanish (and hence English) are of Taíno origin, as you can see from the list in the middle of the relevant Wikipedia article.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


You don’t have to be very sharp to recognize that Spanish cacto means the same as English cactus. Nevertheless, if Gertrude Stein, speaking of a different plant that also has showy flowers and warrants careful handling, wrote that “A rose is a rose is a rose,” people who delve into etymology and botany can say that “A cactus isn’t a cactus isn’t a cactus.” For the Romans, the word cactus referred to a cardo/cardoon, which is a thistly relative of the artichoke that people cultivate for its edible root and petioles [leaf stalks]. The Romans had taken cactus from Greek kaktos, which designated a certain prickly plant found in Sicily that is now called an alcachofa española/Spanish artichoke.

To transfer a word from an artichoke to a cardoon wasn’t much of a stretch, but how did cacto/cactus come to designate the different sort of plant we know by that name today? The answer is that Linnaeus, the great categorizer of modern botany, mistakenly believing that cacti, with their spines, are related to thistles, with their prickles, recycled the ancient thistle-related Latin word as a name for what later turned out to be an unrelated family of plants. By then the modern sense of cacto/cactus had become firmly established, and we have been stuck with—or by—it ever since.

Prickly Pear Cactus Spine Piercing Tuna 5069

The small and large spines of a prickly pear cactus.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


A post in the Pairodox blog a few months ago dealt with a modern implementation of an ancient Roman catapult-type weapon known as an onager. Not having heard of it before, I looked it up in my Latin dictionary and found that the term originally referred to a type of wild donkey. When I looked further, I discovered that English has carried the word over for both the animal and the ancient siege weapon named after it. Then I checked to see if Spanish has a version of the word and I found that it does: onagro, which likewise serves for the animal and the siege weapon.

It turns out that Latin onager (which also appeared in the form onagrus) is opaque, meaning that it’s hard to recognize its etymological components. Latin took the word from Greek onagros, which was barely less opaque. Its first element was onos, a cognate of English ass and of the Latin asinus that has become asno in Spanish. The second element in the Greek compound was agrios ‘wild,’ in which we recognize relatives in Latin ager ‘field’ and native English acre. In light of those two components, we can see that for the Greeks an onagros was literally a ‘wild ass.’

Here’s something curious that just struck me: the word onager is an anagram of orange, and neither word rhymes with anything else in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

The right side of words

I’ve spent years trying to stay on the right side of words, which for the sake of this column means the etymological side. The word word is native English, and it arose from a suffixed form of the Indo-European root *wer-, which meant ‘to speak.’ That same root produced Latin verbum (whose v was pronounced like an English w), which meant the same as its English cognate word.

It doesn’t take much of an observer to notice that Latin verbum looks a whole lot like our word verbo/verb, and of course a verb is a kind of a word. Is that just a coincidence? No. What happened is that a Greek descendant of Indo-European *wer- took on the sense ‘verb [as opposed to a noun],’ and Latin added the Greek sense to its own verbum. Spanish borrowed that meaning of the word as verbo, and Old French as verbe, which has become English verb.

The plural of the neuter Latin noun verbum was verba, which could mean literally ‘words’ but also more loosely ‘expressions, language, discourse, conversation.’ Vulgar Latin transformed that to *verva, foreshadowing the confusion between b and v that still exists in Spanish. As happened to many Latin neuter plurals, *verva, with its typically feminine ending, came to be construed as a feminine singular as it evolved to Old French verve, one of whose meanings was ‘inspiration.’ By the 1400s the word took on the sense ‘fanciful expression, caprice,’ but still with a connection to the spoken word. Near the end of the 1600s English borrowed verve, which stands as a doublet alongside verb. The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, which I often quote because it’s out of copyright and because its definitions tend to be full of verve themselves, defined verve as ‘excitement of imagination such as animates a poet, artist, or musician, in composing or performing; rapture; enthusiasm; spirit; energy.’

Although Spanish has done its share of borrowing from French, English has done a whole lot more. That was a result initially of the French conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but English kept right on borrowing even after the French were no longer in control of England. Spanish doesn’t share with French the development of Vulgar Latin *verva, nor did it borrow the word from French or English. The Velazquez® Spanish and English Dictionary translates the useful English verve as ‘energía; empuje; brío; entusiasmo.’

©2015 Steven Schwartzman

Charlie Hebdo

Yesterday there was a terrorist attack on the staff of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. As much as people around the world reacted to the horror of the event, many non-French speakers might have thought that Charlie Hebdo was someone’s full name. In English, Charlie is certainly a pet form of Charles, but while French hebdo is a colloquialism, it’s not based on a name; it’s a shortened form of hebdomadaire, meaning ‘weekly,’ because Charlie Hebdo is a weekly newspaper.

French took hebdomadaire from Ecclesiastical Latin hebdomadārius, which designated ‘a priest appointed for a weekly duty.’ The 1913 Webster’s gives more details in its definition: ‘A member of a chapter or convent, whose week it is to officiate in the choir, and perform other services, which, on extraordinary occasions, are performed by the superiors.’ The term hebdomadārius was based on Classical Latin hebdomas, which meant ‘a group of seven’ or in particular ‘the point that marks the end of a seven-day period.’ The Romans had taken the word from Greek hebdomos ‘seventh,’ which came from the simpler hepta ‘seven.’ If we remember that ancient Greek typically converted an Indo-European initial s to h (similar to the way Spanish often transformed an initial Latin f to h, as in facere —> hacer), we can more readily see the relationship between Greek hepta and its Latin cognate septem, the ancestor of Spanish siete. Those forms descended from Indo-European *septm-, the source also of native English seven.

Based on the root of Latin septem we have words like séptuplo/septuple; septeto/septet; and septiembre/September, which was the seventh month in the Roman calendar until January and February got added at the beginning of the lineup.

Returning to the word that started this article, we should note that hebdomadario/hebdomadary exists as a religious term for ‘a weekly Catholic officeholder.’ Spanish also refers to that, even in a non-religious context, as a semanero, another word that, like semana ‘week,’ comes from Latin septem. The specific ancestor was Latin septimāna, which originally designated ‘a festival falling on the seventh day of the month’—a great irony when we realize that the fanatical attack in Paris took place on the seventh day of January.

© 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.
©2011–2014 Steven Schwartzman

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