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.’

More stunning tarantula-related matters

The last post discussed a word used in the Philippines, tarantado, which had been shortened slightly from Spanish atarantado ‘stunned, dazed.’ One question raised but not answered in that post was how atarantado lost its first syllable when it passed into the languages of the Philippines. Linguists have a name for that process: the dropping of one or more sounds as the beginning of a word is called aféresis/aph(a)eresis, a Greek word that means literally ‘a taking away.’ In the case of atarentado, the word stress falls three syllables after the initial a-, which is therefore weakly pronounced; the next step was for Filipinos to drop it altogether. (For a Spanish example of aféresis, consider how ahora gave rise to the shortened ora; for an English example, consider how a raccoon has become for some speakers a coon.)

Yesterday’s post didn’t explain apheresis, but it did explain that Old Italian attarentato, the predecessor of Spanish atarentado, developed from the notion of a person being stunned by the bite of a tarantula, which is a type of large, hairy spider that had previously gotten its name from the southeastern Italian city of Taranto. The inhabitants of that city must have had vivid imaginations, because Taranto also lent its name to the condition called tarantismo/tarantism. A little over a century ago, the aptly named Century Dictionary defined the term this way: ‘A dancing mania; specifically and originally, a dancing mania of the south of Italy in those who had been bitten by a tarantula, or thought they had been, and their imitators.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary had this definition: ‘A nervous affection producing melancholy, stupor, and an uncontrollable desire to dance. It was supposed to be produced by the bite of the tarantula, and considered to be incapable of cure except by protracted dancing to appropriate music.’

The type of rapid dance that Italians from the 1400s through the 1600s believed could cure tarantism came to be known, appropriately, as a tarantella. Spanish and English have borrowed the Italian word, with Spanish spelling it tarantela. In the centuries since then, the connection to tarantulas has largely been lost, and anyone can compose, play, or dance a tarantella.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Some stunning observations

Eve, my asawa ‘esposa/wife,’ speaks Cebuano as her native language. Most readers of this column will never have heard of that language, so I’ll tell you that varieties of it are spoken in the central and southern Philippines, and that it probably has more native speakers than the better known (outside that country) Tagalog (the word is stressed on its middle syllable). Because Spain colonized the Philippines in the 1500s, over the next several centuries the native languages of the archipelago absorbed thousands of Spanish words, much as English borrowed heavily from French in the centuries after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

While reading an online Philippine newspaper some years ago, Eve came across the word tarantado, which she explained means ‘slow to understand, dull-witted, foolish, confused.’ The word was clearly taken from Spanish, but I couldn’t figure out what the original might be or have been (I say “have been” because in some cases Philippine languages preserve words that have fallen out of use in Spanish). At around the same time, by following the tag “etymology,” I happened across a blog that I inferred was written by a Filipino, so I took the opportunity to post a comment asking about tarantado. Mati, the writer of that blog, wrote back after doing some research:

When I asked around, people were certain that it was of Spanish origin but as to which word, they didn’t know. One source said it means “blunder head.” There was one that said it comes from “atarantado,” the past participle of “atarantar”. Now, how the a in “atarantado” was dropped is another thing. I don’t know who can trace it. I don’t know if this is of any worth to you but to us here–while “tarantado” means “stupid, foolish”–we also have another word, “taranta.” It means “panic, confusion.” I believe it has a stronger connection to the original meaning of “atarantar,” to daze.

The reason I hadn’t connected tarantado to atarantado, which seems such an obvious link, is simple: Spanish atarantado was as new a word to me as Cebuano tarantado. The next step was obviously to investigate the Spanish word. According to Guido Gómez de Silva, atarantado probably came from Old Italian attarentato, which he glossed as ‘aturdido; epiléptico,’ from the notion ‘aturdido por la picadura de una tarántula,’ which is to say ‘stunned by the bite of a tarantula.’ Attarentato would have been derived from taranta, a southern Italian form of tarantola, the standard Italian word for tarántula/tarantula (which is the Medieval Latin version of the Italian word). Italian tarantola had come from Taranto, the name of a city in southeastern Italy that was apparently home to its share of the large, hairy spiders.

Corresponding to the past participle atarantado, Spanish has all the other forms of the verb atarantar, whose meanings are ‘to daze, stun, dumbfound.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The strange (because of its semantics) Spanish verb chapuzar means, in the definition of the DRAE, ‘Meter a alguien de cabeza en el agua,’ which is to say ‘To put someone head-down into the water.’ Definitely not helpful to breathing, right? Why a language needs a verb like that isn’t obvious, nor, due to phonetic changes, is it obvious where the verb came from. The modern form of the word goes back to the end of the 1500s, but in the 1200s the verb was zapuzar and before that sopozar, in which we can finally begin to recognize the elements of the compound. The so- developed from Latin sub ‘under,’ and the second element is the same as in pozo ‘a well,’ so the notion was ‘[to put someone] under [the water in] a well.’

And what about the ‘head first’ part of the modern meaning? Joan Corominas gives the answer to that when he explains the change in the second vowel that took place on the way from sopozar to zapuzar. It seems there was influence from the similar-sounding and -meaning verb capuzar that had arisen from Latin caput ‘head.’ In essence, the two verbs merged—dare we say got submerged?—and chapuzar was the eventual result.

Although probably no connection to English comes to mind (other than the many words with sub- as a prefix), there is one. Spanish pozo developed from Latin puteus ‘a water well,’ which ultimately surfaced in the Old English borrowing pytt, the source of the modern noun pit whose fundamental meaning is ‘a cavity in the ground.’ That’s a different word from the pit that’s ‘the kernel in a fruit,’ but the same pit that as a verb means ‘to set in opposition,’ as when one candidate for political office is pitted against another. The semantic connection is via the type of pit that people have traditionally made in the ground for the purpose of staging combats, as for instance roosters in a cockpit. By another transference, the fact that a cockpit is a small, enclosed space led to the now-primary sense of the word: ‘the compartment in which the pilot of an airplane sits.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

More day to dawn

Readers may recognize the title of today’s post from the poetic ending of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” What dawns in this column is more etymology: in particular, I’d like to continue with the previous post by looking at a few more words that begin with eo-, from Greek eos ‘dawn,’ a descendant of the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine.’ As noted last time, scientists have coined words that use eo- in the sense ‘very early, primitive.’

A raptor is ‘a person or animal that carries off another,’ so an eoraptor, which has been translated as ‘dawn plunderer,’ is the name given to ‘a certain type of very early dinosaur that lived about 230 million years ago, toward the end of the Triassic Period.’ Wikipedia articles describing eoraptor exist in Spanish and English.

Based on Greek lithos ‘stone,’ an eolito/eolith is ‘a stone from the dawn of time.’ Scholars who specialize in ancient history began using the term in the late 1800s to designate what they believed to be very crude artifacts made by early humans. A more recent view, however, is that such stone pieces were formed by natural rather than human processes. Wikipedia articles describing eoliths exist in Spanish and English.

In contrast to those two words, the scientific term eosina/eosin was given its name based on the colors of the sky at dawn. As the English-language Wikipedia article notes: “Eosin is a fluorescent red dye resulting from the action of bromine on fluorescein. It can be used to stain cytoplasm, collagen and muscle fibers for examination under the microscope. Structures that stain readily with eosin are termed eosinophilic.” There is also a Spanish-language Wikipedia article about eosina, and the Spanish equivalent of eosinophilic is eosinófilo.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine’ gave rise not only to English east and Easter and Latin aurora, but also to Greek eos ‘dawn.’ From that comes the eo- that appears as a first element in several learned coinages, where it means ‘dawn’ in the figurative sense of ‘earliest, most primitive.’ One such coinage is eohippus, or ‘dawn horse,’ a name given to the earliest distinguishable ancestor of the modern horse. The eohippus (for which Spanish has the additional form eohipo) was originally the size of a dog; it developed in the Americas and ultimately died out there, but not before its larger descendants had colonized other continents, from which they were reintroduced into the Americas beginning at the end of the 1400s.

Another eo- word, one whose second element comes from Greek kainos ‘recent,’ is Eoceno/Eocene, which the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica identified this way: “in geology, the name suggested by Sir C. Lyell in 1833 for the lower subdivision of the rocks of the Tertiary Era. The term was intended to convey the idea that this was the period which saw the dawn of the recent or existing forms of life, because it was estimated that among the fossils of this period only 31% (roughly a third) of the species are still living. Since Lyell’s time much has been learned about the fauna and flora of the period, and many palaeontologists doubt if any of the Eocene species are still extant, unless it be some of the lowest forms of life. Nevertheless the name is a convenient one and is in general use. The Eocene as originally defined, however, was not long left intact, for E. Beyrich in 1854 proposed the term ‘Oligocene’ for the upper portion, and later, in 1874, K. Schimper suggested ‘Paleocene’ as a separate appellation for the lower portion. The Oligocene division has been generally accepted as a distinct period, but ‘Paleocene’ is not so widely used.”

Today’s dictionaries show Eoceno/Eocene referring to ‘the second epoch of the Tertiary Period.’ (It’s as if scientists instituted something akin to a permanent Daylight Saving Time for the Eocene, bumping it up one level.)

Users of Canon single-lens reflex (SLR) digital cameras may wonder if EOS, the designation for those models, was taken from Greek eos, but the name arose as an English-language acronym for ‘Electro-Optical System.’ As a recent afterthought, however, Canon took advantage of the Greek word’s meaning and reinterpreted EOS as ‘Goddess of the Dawn’ in its online Canon Camera Museum.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

On friends and photographic devices

The English word chum, meaning ‘friend,’ arose in the late 1600s as Oxford University slang, and there’s speculation that the word was a shortening of the phrase chamber fellow, the equivalent of what we would now call a roommate. English took chamber from Old French chambre, the synonym and cognate of Spanish cámara, which had developed from Late Latin camera ‘a room.’ If cámara/camera now means ‘a photographic device,’ it’s because during the Renaissance some people noticed that if they constructed a camera obscura ‘dark room’ with a small opening in one wall, an upside-down image of a bright subject outside would be cast on the opposite interior wall. It took centuries for researchers to figure out how to record such an image, during which time the term camera came to be applied to the smaller and smaller “chambers,” i.e. optical devices with dark interiors, that were involved.

Where English has the doublets chamber and camera, with the semantics split between them, the single Spanish word cámara conveys various senses: for example, there’s a cámara fotográfica and a cámara de comercio ‘chamber of commerce,’ and by itself a cámara is ‘a main room in a house.’ Further complicating the situation is that Spanish also has the compound recámara (there’s no parallel English *rechamber), which is ‘a room behind the main room in a house.’ In some Spanish-speaking countries that’s ‘a place to store clothing and jewelry,’ but in other countries it’s ‘a bedroom.’ A recámara can also be ‘the chamber in a firearm’ and by extension ‘a place in a mine where explosives are stored.’

One compound that Spanish and English share (because English took the word from Old French, which had gotten it from Old Spanish) is camarada/comrade, etymologically (in the plural) ‘[people who] room together, roommates,’ or as Oxford University students started saying over 300 years ago, ‘chums.’

© 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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