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

A foxy plant

The German noun Fuchs** means the same as its native English cognate fox. Just as Fox serves as a family name in English, Fuchs does in German, and it so happens that the genus of plants called Fuchsia was named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs, who lived from 1501 to 1566. Because some of those plants produce flowers of a vivid reddish purple, that hue has been given the name fucsia/fuchsia. As far as I know, Spanish speakers don’t mess up their word for that color, but English speakers have mispronounced fuchsia for so long that the standard pronunciation has become fyoo-shuh. As a result of that pronunciation,  fuchsia is high on the list of the most often misspelled English words, with *fuschia probably appearing more often than the correct fuchsia.


** German still capitalizes its nouns, as English once did.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Oruga, the Spanish word for ‘caterpillar,’ developed from the synonymous Latin noun ūrūca. That Latin noun had another form, ērūca, and another meaning as the name for a certain plant in the cabbage (crucifer) family. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that it was “perhaps… so called from its hairy stems resembling caterpillars, or from the fact that cruciferous vegetables are often infested with caterpillars.” One name for that edible plant in English is colewort, the first part of which is a cognate of Spanish col ‘cabbage.’ Various other English names for the plant show an etymological connection to Latin ērūcarucola, rucoli, roquette, (salad) rocket, and rugula. If that last seems almost familiar, it’s probably because of its better-known form in American English, arugula. Apparently that version of the word came from a dialect of Italian, as opposed to the rucola in standard Italian. Notice how standard Italian retained the k sound between vowels in ērūca, while the dialect picked up the voicing of the vowels that surrounded the k and turned it into a g sound. Spanish did the same thing as ūrūca became oruga.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Several unexpected answers

The etymology of the English word answer answers several questions about related words in English and Spanish. Answer, with its now-silent w, is descended from Old English andswaru, whose d is not only no longer pronounced but also not even retained in the current spelling. The swaru in the old form of the compound, which has become modern English swear, goes back to the Indo-European root *swer- ‘to talk, speak.’ The first element in Old English andswaru traces back to Indo-European *ant-, which meant literally ‘front, forehead,’ but which led to the notion of confronting something, which is to say turning against it. We see that sense in the Greek descendant anti, which Spanish and English (and other languages) now use as a prefix in so many words. To answer, then, is literally ‘to speak back,’ originally as a rebuttal, but then more generally ‘to respond [to an assertion or question].’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

If pigs had wings

Spanish has a lively expression that English doesn’t share, cerdo de vida. Translated literally, that would be the inexplicable ‘life pig,’ but the Diccionario de la lengua española explains that the phrase refers to a ‘cerdo que no ha cumplido un año, y no está todavía bien criado para la matanza,’ which is to say ‘a pig that is less than a year old and isn’t yet ready to be slaughtered.’ Lucky pig: in contrast, a cerdo de muerte is a ‘cerdo que ha pasado de un año, y es apto ya para la matanza,’ or ‘a pig that is more than a year old and is now ready to be slaughtered.’

The origin of cerdo is interesting. It’s based on cerda ‘bristle,’ from the fact that hogs have bristly hairs on them. Cerda had developed from Vulgar Latin *cirra ‘a tuft of hair in an animal’s mane,’ the feminine of the Latin cirrus that meant ‘lock, curl, tuft of hair’ in general and ‘the hair on the forehead of a horse’ in particular. Now you can see why meteorologists adopted cirro/cirrus as a name for ‘a type of fleecy cloud found at high altitudes.’ Some English speakers are fond of saying “If pigs had wings they would fly,” which is a roundabout but colorful way of saying that something is impossible. In terms of Spanish etymology, though, pigs are already up there in the clouds.


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

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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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