The previous post mentioned that Spanish and English borrowed lava from Italian, which may have acquired it from Latin lābēs ‘a fall,’ given the way lava “falls” down the side of a volcano. The Latin noun had come from the verb lābī, whose meanings included ‘to move gently along a smooth surface, to fall, slide; to slide, slip, or glide down, to fall down, to sink.’ From that verb came the adjective lābilis, meaning ‘slipping, gliding, prone to slip or slide,’ which Spanish and English have carried over as lábil/labile. The definitions given in the DRAE and the American Heritage Dictionary are, respectively:

1. Que resbala o se desliza fácilmente.
2. Frágil, caduco, débil.
3. Poco estable, poco firme en sus resoluciones.
4. Quím. Dicho de un compuesto: Inestable, que se transforma fácilmente en otro.

1. Open to change; readily changeable or unstable: labile chemical compounds; tissues with labile cell populations.
2. Fluctuating widely: labile hypertension; labile emotions.
3. Decomposing readily: the labile component of organic matter.

While you may be hard put to think of any other related words, once I point out that the past participle of Latin lābī was lāpsus, you should immediately think of lapso/lapse. (English can use lapse as a verb, but the DRAE doesn’t show a corresponding *lapsar or *lapsear.) In addition, both languages sometimes use the original Latin noun lāpsus, which may be best known in the phrase lāpsus linguae ‘a slip of the tongue.’ Less frequently seen phrases are lāpsus memoriae ‘a lapse of memory’ and, especially in the computer age, lāpsus calamī ‘a slip of the pen.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman



In a bit of versifying on my other blog recently I used the uncommon and now mostly literary English verb lave, which Spanish speakers will easily recognize as a cognate of lavar ‘to wash.’ I assumed English took the word from Old French laver, but in looking up the etymology of lave I found that the Old French verb merely reinforced an earlier borrowing, one in which Old English created the verb lafian directly from Latin lavāre. I’d also assumed that lava, the volcanic substance for which Spanish and English use the same word, was related, but The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the noun came from Italian, which may have inherited it from Latin lābēs ‘a fall,’ given the way lava “falls” down the side of a volcano. Yet another thing I learned is that Spanish has a second noun lava that is related to lavar and that engineers use to mean ‘the act of washing,’ as applied to minerals, for example.

The two etymological trails meet in a heavy-duty handwashing product that I remember from childhood and that I see still exists: Lava soap, which contains particles of the ground-up volcanic rock called pumice.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered….
—Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade


The 1913 Webster’s offered these definitions of the English word volley as a noun:
A flight of missiles, as arrows, bullets, or the like; the simultaneous discharge of a number of small arms.
A burst or emission of many things at once; as, a volley of words.
(Tennis) A return of the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) A sending of the ball full to the top of the wicket.


Used as a verb, the way Tennyson did, volley means:

To be thrown out, or discharged, at once; to be discharged in a volley, or as if in a volley.

(Tennis) To return the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) To send the ball full to the top of the wicket.

Although that dictionary mentioned tennis and cricket, it omitted volleyball, a game that had come into being in 1895 and apparently still wasn’t well-known in 1913.


English borrowed volley from French volée, a feminine past participle used as a noun. The infinitive of the verb was voler ‘to fly,’ from the Latin volāre that had also given rise to Spanish volar and Italian volare (which people of a certain age remember from the hit song of 1958). We note that Spanish has borrowed English volleyball directly as voleibol and also less directly (and never, in my experience) as balonvolea.


Where volley is an uncommon verb in English, Spanish volar ‘to fly’ is quite common. It has produced various derivatives, a few of which are:


vuelo ‘flight’ (also volada, the cognate of French volée);
voladizo ‘projecting’ (in architecture);
volador ‘flying’ (and as a noun ‘flying fish’ and ‘a type of rocket’);
volante, whose various meanings are listed here.
volear ‘to volley’ (in sports).


© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

There’s no getting out of it: there is no rage in outrage

The last post dealt in part with the short and useful English word out, but even without that priming of the pump, almost all native English speakers who are asked about the origin of the word outrage will assume it’s a compound made up of out and rage. The semantics seem strongly to support that interpretation: an outrage is behavior that goes outside the norm of decency, and people who have been the victims of outrageous behavior can understandably be filled with rage. But as the title says, there’s no getting out of it: there is no rage in outrage, nor is there any out.

The Spanish cognate of outrage, ultraje, offers insight into the true origin of the word, which is based on the Latin ultrā that meant ‘beyond,’ so an outrage goes beyond the bounds of decent behavior. The reason there’s no trace of the original l in outrage is that English took the word intact from Old French, where Latin ultrā had evolved to outre, and -age was (and still is) a standard noun-forming suffix that’s cognate to Spanish -aje. English has also more recently borrowed French outré, which means ‘eccentric, bizarre, startlingly unconventional.’

Spanish and English both have compounds with ultra- in them, like ultramarino/ultramarine, ultravioleta/ultraviolet, ultramoderno/ultramodern, and ultramontano/ultramontane. The prefix seems to be more of a living one in English than in Spanish, as evidenced by compounds like ultra-chic, ultra-picky, ultra-sexy, ultra-stupid, ultra-gross. I searched online and didn’t find an example of anyone using ultra-outré, but it’s probably only a matter of time, and until then this post might turn up if anyone else does a search for that etymologically redundant phrase.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


I recently came across the word hysteresis, in which English puts secondary stress on the first syllable and primary stress on the third. In contrast, as the written accent in histéresis tells us, Spanish stresses the second syllable. Regardless, the discrepancy in stress between the two languages should occasion no stress in us and be no cause for histeria/hysteria, a similar-looking word that is likewise of Greek origin but is otherwise unrelated. (This is a good time to remind ourselves yet again that not all that glitters is gold.)

Histéresis/hysteresis is a scientific term that means ‘the lagging of an effect behind its cause.’ Wikipedia puts it more technically: ‘Hysteresis is the time-based dependence of a system’s output on current and past inputs.’ In doing some looking, I didn’t find examples of the term in climatology, but hysteresis would seem to fit the familiar phenomenon of the seasons lagging behind the sun; for example, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest elevation at the summer solstice near the end of June, but the hottest days in the season don’t normally occur until August.

But we’re not here to discuss science. According to Wikipedia, the term hysteresis was coined around 1890 by Sir James Alfred Ewing to describe the behaviour of magnetic materials.’ Ewing took the word from ancient Greek husterēsis, which meant ‘a shortcoming.’ That word had been built on husteros, meaning ‘late,’ which the American Heritage Dictionary traces back to Indo-European *ud-tero, a comparative form of the *ud- that meant both ‘up’ and ‘out.’ Greek husteros, therefore, had originally conveyed the sense ‘farther out [in time].’

Although Indo-European *ud- seems to have left no native descendants in Latin (and therefore none in Spanish either), it produced native English out, which stands alone as a preposition and adverb, and serves as a particle in phrasal verbs like make out, figure out, get out, check out, point out, drop out. Out also appears in compounds like outlaw, outlandish, outpouring, outlier, outsized, output, and outline. Out may be short, but it’s an out-and-out useful word in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Latin paene

Sometimes a word that was common in Latin at some point in the language’s existence ended up losing currency and not continuing on into the Romance languages. One such word was paene, which meant ‘almost.’ It didn’t survive in Spanish, getting replaced by casi. Or at least it didn’t survive in its own right, but it did leave traces in compounds. An instance of that is península/peninsula, which means etymologically ‘almost an insula,’ which is to say ‘almost an island.’ Another compound is penúltimo/penultimate, literally ‘almost the ultimate,’ meaning ‘almost the last; next-to-the-last.’ In English, ultimate has added the sense of a word that it sounds somewhat similar to, utmost. Then, following a familiar development in which words gradually lose meaning, there are increasingly many people who use words like amazing, incredible, terrific, great, fantastic, unbelievable, and now ultimate, to mean simply ‘good, likable.’

That reminds me now—and you’ll see why in a moment—of an experiment that has been done with children. The experimenter pours a fixed amount of water into two differently shaped glass containers, one that’s tall and narrow, the other that’s broad and low. A child who is young enough will believe that there’s more water in the tall and narrow container than in the broad and flat one, even after watching the same amount of water poured into each. Apparently children develop a sense of comparative magnitude initially in one dimension, in this case height, and only later expand that sense into two and three dimensions.

Something of that linear sense of magnitude seems to persist in some English-speaking adults. They think that if ultimate means ‘good,’ then penultimate, which is a longer word than ultimate, must mean ‘very good’ or ‘the best.’ In fact there are people who never learned the real meaning of penultimate and for whom those are the word’s only senses. That’s a recent development, and I don’t know how widespread the usage is. Educated people consider it a mistake, and no current dictionary that I’ve looked in includes the mistaken senses of penultimate. Will the error ultimately die out? Can we hope that it’s in its penultimate year?

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Some etymological interference

Or say more specifically some etymological interference from French. A friend recently forwarded to me an e-mail with some interesting facts about French words, like the longest French palindrome (ressasser) and the curiosity of squelette being the only masculine word ending in -ette. The introduction to the list of curiosities said it was intended “pour les férus de la langue française,” meaning “for those people who are passionate about (literally ‘smitten with’) the French language.” I recognized féru as the past participle of a verb that has otherwise almost disappeared from French, férir, meaning ‘to strike,’ and coming from Latin ferīre ‘to knock, strike, kill.’ And there lies the connection to Spanish, because Latin ferīre evolved to Spanish herir, with the characteristic phonetic shift from f- to h-, and in this case with a shift in meaning to ‘to wound.’ In addition, the Spanish feminine past participle herida has come to function as a noun meaning ‘a wound.’

But this is a blog about the connections between Spanish and English, so on to the English—but not without returning to French again. Old French ferir entered into the compound s’entreferer ‘to strike one another, to trade blows.’ That passed away in French, but not before passing into English as interfere, (which, I’ll add “pour les férus de la langue française,” French later reimported as interférer).

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The Spanish noun esguince means ‘a sprain,’ but a couple of other senses are ‘a twisting that a person does to avoid a blow or to keep from falling’ and ‘a facial gesture or bodily movement by which someone expresses disgust or disdain.’ The Spanish word traces back to the Vulgar Latin verb *exquīntiāre ‘to tear, rip, rend,’ a compound of the familiar prefix ex-, used here as an intensifier,’ and the root of the ordinal number quintus ‘fifth.’ The original meaning, then, would have been ‘to tear into five parts,’ but eventually the specifics of the arithmetic got lost (as is happening now with the English verb decimate, which for many speakers has lost its connection to the original sense ‘destroy a tenth of’).

Spanish has inherited Latin quintus as quinto ‘fifth.’ From quintus and the Latin element that meant ‘folded’ we have quíntuple/quintuple ‘fivefold.’ A quintillizo/quintuplet is ‘one of five siblings born at the same time.’ The Romans used Quintus as a name and English has followed suit: Patrick Hanks and Patricia Hodges report that in the 19th century, when Quintus was most popular, parents chose it to name a fifth son or a fifth child that happened to be male. The English name Quincy also traces back to Latin Quintus. So does Quentin, which reminds us that the American president John Adams chose Quincy as a middle name for his son (who later became the country’s sixth rather than fifth president), while Theodore Roosevelt chose Quentin as a first name for his last son.

The Romans named the fifth month in their calendar Quintīlis (later bumped to seventh place and ultimately renamed Iūlius), but now in statistics a quintil/quintile is ‘any one of the groups that results when a frequency distribution is divided into five equal parts.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

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

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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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