Punning around

Yesterday shoreacres brought to my attention an article which included the contention that “There’s not even a word for pun in Spanish….” That’s a punny contention to make because Spanish has several words that convey that notion of ‘a pun, a play on words.’ One is retruécano, formed from re- and the root of the verb trocar ‘to swap, exchange, trade, confuse.’ Unfortunately for this blog, not only is trocar of obscure origin, but it’s also a word for which I’ve found has no connection to anything in English. Strike one.

In Mexican Spanish, albur is another word for ‘pun,’ but it’s of Arabic origin and also seems not to have any English relatives. Strike two.

A third word for ‘pun’ is calambur, which is a Spanish respelling of French calembour. That French word, like Spanish trocar, is of uncertain origin, but at least there’s a connection to English: the Collins English Dictionary includes calembour and defines it as ‘a pun.’ That said, when I searched online I found few uses of calembour in English-language texts. At least there seems little likelihood that calembour will become a calembore through overuse. I’d better stop there because I wouldn’t want to turn into a calemboor.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


I suspect most native English speakers never realize that the prefix un- is actually two unrelated prefixes, both of which sometimes get attached to the same word. Consider these two sentences:

(1) I tried to carry out all the tasks on my list, but some remained undone.

(2) As soon as the new leader took office, he quickly saw to it that the previous leader’s excesses were undone.

The un- in (1) means ‘not,’ while the un- in (2) adds the sense ‘reversed, counteracted.’ Granted, there’s some semantic overlap, because to reverse an action is in some sense to negate it, to leave it not being as it was. In fact that partial semantic overlap has influenced the development of one of the prefixes and may account for the fact that so many native speakers conflate the two.

The un- that means ‘not’ traces back to the Indo-European negative *ne, which also gave rise to the negative Latin prefix in– (with assimilating variants im-, il-, and ir-). The counteracting un- arose from the Indo-European root *ant-, whose senses were ‘front’ and ‘forehead.’ It’s surprising to realize what that root gave rise to in Latin: the prefix anti-, which meant ‘against.’ The semantics must have been that when you confront something you figuratively push your head forward into it and therefore go against it. In any case, Spanish and English have many words that incorporate the prefix anti-.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


When I bought a new faucet for my kitchen sink some years ago, I couldn’t help noticing that the box it came in was a sort of Rosetta stone, though with cardboard in lieu of the stone that would have made the container impractically heavy and expensive. The three kinds of writing on the box were not ancient Greek and two forms of Egyptian, but the modern languages English, Spanish, and French. For this blog’s audience I’ll forgo the French, but the English text identified the product as a “HighArc Kitchen Faucet” and the Spanish as a “Grifo de Cuello de Cisne.” I leave it to you to decide whether cuello de cisne ‘swan’s neck’ is a more poetic description than high-arc [which I’ve respelled]. I wasn’t familiar with grifo, but by context it had to mean ‘faucet.’ To my surprise, when I looked up the word I found that it’s the same grifo that originally meant and still means ‘griffin,’ which English also spells griffon and gryphon. The Spanish and English versions of the word ultimately trace back to grups, the ancient Greek name for the fabulous creature. As a refresher for you and me, here’s how Noah Webster defined griffon in his 1828 dictionary:

In the natural history of the ancients, an imaginary animal said to be generated between the lion and eagle. It is represented with four legs, wings and a beak, the upper part resembling an eagle, and the lower part a lion. This animal was supposed to watch over mines of gold and hidden treasures, and was consecrated to the sun. The figure of the griffon is seen on ancient medals, and is still borne in coat-armor. It is also an ornament of Greek architecture.

I proceeded to do an online search and turned up many images of griffons. I found that people have extended the use of the word to a type of vulture, which isn’t that much of a stretch, and also to a type of dog, which is quite a stretch. Apparently the curved shape of the mythological griffon’s eagle-like beak was what led Spanish to use grifo metaphorically for ‘a faucet.’ My faucet, with its cuello de cisne, added a different bird to the mix.

While English doesn’t use griffin as a verb and hasn’t made a verb like *griffinize from it, Spanish has used grifo in its original meaning of a mythical creature to create grifarse, which means ‘to rise up, rear up, stand up.’ The DRAE adds two senses of that reflexive verb that have developed in Costa Rica: ‘to get goose bumps; to get high on marijuana.’ It seems that the Costa Ricans have rich imaginations indeed.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

[This is an updated version of a post from 2010.]

Pea in its own right

While there’s no pea in peacock, the kind of green pea that people eat deserves a look in its own right. The singular of that word in Old English was pise, which in Middle English became pease. From its pronunciation, that eventually got taken for a plural, so English speakers created the new and unambiguous singular pea. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word originally came into Old English from Late Latin pīsa, which was a variant of the pīsum that Latin had taken from Greek pisos, pison.

Although the most common Spanish word for ‘pea’ is probably the unrelated arveja, pea does have two roughly synonymous relatives in Spanish. The one that’s not hard to recognize is pésol. It came into Spanish from Catalan pèsol, which had developed from pīsulum, a diminutive of Latin pīsum. And then there’s guisante, which almost no one would suspect is an etymological relative. It owes its disguise to the fact that it entered Spanish from Arabic. The Arabs had most likely borrowed the Latin phrase pīsum sapidum, in which the adjective, which Spanish has borrowed as sápido, meant ‘tasty.’ That phrase was phonetically reduced on its way to becoming Mozárabe biššáuṭ, which then passed into various Spanish dialects. The modern form guisante is due to influence from the unrelated verb guisar ‘to stew, to cook.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

When is a pea not a pea?

The pea in the English word peacock has nothing to do with peas but comes, via an Old English borrowing, from the Latin word for ‘peacock,’ which was pāvō.  Spanish speakers still use pavo, but for a different fowl, the turkey. The phrase pavo real designates the peacock, with its regal fan of feathers.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Sí and she

Who would’ve thought that Spanish and English she, similar in sound but so far apart in their meanings, are etymologically related? In spite of your skepticism, así es, that’s the way it is.

To see the connection, we go back, as is often the case in these articles, to Indo-European. In particular, we start with the Indo-European root *so-, meaning ‘this’ or ‘that’ and serving as the base for nominative-case forms of the demonstrative pronoun. A suffixed variant of that root gave rise to Latin sīc, a little word for which Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gave a lot of translations: ‘so, thus, in this or that manner, in such a manner, in the same way or manner, in like manner, likewise, to this or that extent or degree, to such a degree, in this or that state or condition, in such a condition .’ As Latin evolved to Spanish, sīc lost its final consonant and became , the etymological sense of which is ‘[it’s] so.’ We’ve borrowed the Latin adverb in formal writing to indicate that something we’re quoting that has a mistake in it was that way in the original. For instance, if I were to quote a recent headline from the Austin American-Statesman, I’d write: “Texas has so far failed to elect a Hispanic women [sic] to Congress.”

The Indo-European demonstrative *so- also gave rise to Old English sēo, the source of modern English she, which is therefore indeed a relative of Spanish . From that basic Spanish adverb comes the compound así ‘so, thus, in this way,’ which not coincidentally appeared in this article’s second sentence.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

quokka, quagga

Most native speakers of Spanish and English have never heard of quokka or the similar but unrelated quagga, each of which has the same form in both languages (though Spanish also respells quagga as cuaga, according to its normal rules of orthography). The two words designate animals, but the animals and the languages their names come from evolved on different continents.

The quokka is an Australian marsupial whose name, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, comes from gwaga, a word in southwest Australia’s Nyungar language, a member of the Pama-Nyungan family.

The quagga was a subspecies of zebra that became extinct in the 1800s. Its name ultimately came from the Khoikhoi word !ua-xa, which the American Heritage Dictionary speculates might have originated as an imitation of the African animal’s braying.

Click the following links

to read about the quokka in Spanish;

to read about the quokka in English;

to read about the quagga in Spanish;

to read about the quagga in English.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

And still palpitating

The last post looked at some words derived from Latin palpare, which meant ‘to stroke, touch softly, pat.’ From palpare the Romans themselves created the frequentative palpitare, with meanings that included ‘to move frequently and quickly, to tremble, throb, pant,’ and ultimately ‘to palpitar/palpitate.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave as senses of the modern verb ‘to beat rapidly and more strongly than usual; to throb; to bound with emotion or exertion; to pulsate violently; to flutter.’ In 1828 Noah Webster had given this wonderful definition: ‘To beat gently; to beat, as the heart; to flutter, that is, to move with little throws; as we say, to go pit a pat; applied particularly to a preternatural or excited movement of the heart.’

Ah, to go pit a pat, especially when experiencing a preternatural or excited movement of the heart! Just the stuff of operas, whose Italian lyrics seem preternaturally full of the verb palpitar. For example, in the aria “M’apparì,” or “She appeared to me,” from Flotow’s Martha, we find in the Italian version of the German original:

Il pensier di poter palpitar con lei d’amor,
Può sopir il martir che m’affana e strazia il cor….

The thought of being able to “palpitate” with her in love
Can soften the torture that wracks me and torments my heart….

Standing in contrast to those stilted lyrics are the opening lines of Paul Valéry’s great poem “Le Cimetière marin,” “The Seaside Cemetery”:

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes….

Este techo tranquilo, donde andan [unas] palomas,
Entre los pinos palpita, entre las tumbas….

This tranquil roof, on which pigeons are walking,
Palpitates among the pines, among the tombs….

And in contrast to both of those is the type of pathological palpitación/palpitation that doctors talk about, and that is ‘a rapid and irregular heartbeat’ not caused, except in rare cases, by love and its attendant passions.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Still palpably false

(This is an update of a post from 2011.)

As good as the Internet is for some things, it’s also a great source of misinformation about language (and whatever else you’d care to name). Take the page entitled English language did you knows. When I first came across the page in 2011, it claimed that “skiing is the only word with double i.” Nice try, but that left out genii and radii; it also omitted the tasty mushrooms called shiitake, along with the entomological term reduviid, a name for assassin bugs, which find other insects tasty. The false claim about skiing has since been removed from that site.

The same website still mistakenly claims that “the longest one-syllable [hyphen mine] word in the English language is ‘screeched,'” but a bit higher on the page we see the statement that “the word ‘Strengths’ is the longest word in the English language with just one vowel.” Notice that strengths, like screeched, also has nine letters that form a single syllable, so at best screeched would be tied for the longest one-syllable word. There are other nine-letter monosyllables as well.

The English language did you knows page used to begin with a list of words that supposedly don’t rhyme with anything else. One supposedly unrhymable word was scalp, so the unidentified compiler(s) of this list apparently never heard of the lower case alp, a word formed from Alps that now designates a high mountain in general. Another English word that rhymes with scalp is palp, which the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary defined as ‘a feeler; especially, one of the jointed sense organs attached to the mouth organs of insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and annelids.’ The word is derived from Latin palpare ‘to stroke, touch softly, pat.’ English once borrowed that as palp, a verb meaning ‘to have a distinct touch or feeling of.’ Though palp as a verb is archaic or obsolete in English, the equivalent Spanish palpar is alive and well. Medical English has the verb palpate, meaning ‘to examine a body by pressing it with your fingers.’ Spanish and English have the adjective palpable, whose meanings include ‘touchable’ and by extension ‘obvious, evident, easily noticed or perceived.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


Sometimes an arrangement of letters happens to form a word in both Spanish and English even though the words have nothing to do with each other. For example, English son means ‘male offspring’ while Spanish son means ‘they are.’ At other times, identically spelled words in the two languages do turn out to be related, even if the semantics might not initially suggest a link.

One night I was watching a travel program about Belgium, and in a segment about a church the narrator used the word nave, which is ‘the long central part of a church where people sit.’ In Spanish, of course, the two-syllable nave is ‘a ship.’ While the Spanish and English versions of n-a-v-e may seem unrelated, they’re actually the same word, with both coming from the Latin word for ‘ship,’ nāvis. The connection is that during the Middle Ages members of the Roman Catholic Church began to use nāvis as a metaphor for the central part of a church because its shape reminded them of a ship.  English then borrowed the Latin word as nave.

© 2016 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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