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

Spanish summer is etymologically out of whack

The previous post about primavera ‘spring’ discussed the word’s development as a feminine version of Late Latin primo vero ‘in the first part of the spring.’ The original Latin ver ‘spring’ must have extended into what we now call ‘summer,’ a fact that further justifies the felt need to distinguish the first part of that extended period from the latter part. For those later and hotter months, Vulgar Latin began to use the phrase veranum tempus, where tempus meant ‘time, season,’ and veranum was the adjective corresponding to ver ‘spring.’ Eventually, as happens often enough, the adjective alone came to carry the full semantic weight of the original phrase, with the result that the Spanish verano. came to be a word for ‘summer,’ or at least a part of it at first. In Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española, Guido Gómes de Silva explains: “…en español, hasta el siglo XVI, la palabra primavera denotaba el principio de la primavera; verano, el final de la primavera y el principio del verano; y estío, el fin del verano.” Since then, estío and verano have become synonyms.

As an adjective corresponding to the new summery sense of verano, Spanish couldn’t use vernal, which stayed associated with the early part of the spring–summer continuum, so Spanish speakers created veraniego ‘pertaining to the summer.’ Because the heat during the hottest months can be debilitating, veraniego has added the sense ‘becoming sickly or mentally unstable in the summer.’ From verano Spanish has also created the one-letter-different verbs veranar ‘to spend the summer [anywhere]’ and veranear ‘to take a summer vacation away from home,’ as well as the noun veraneo ‘a summer vacation.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Primavera and spring

Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.

Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.

Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Only an advanced learner of Spanish is likely to know the noun hito, which has various meanings: ‘a milestone or boundary post; a landmark; something or someone that is key or fundamental; a target; the game of quoits.’ Some of those things seem related, but English speakers will have a hard time thinking of any related words in their language.  The first clue to the origin of hito is the initial h-, which we know often resulted from an initial f- in Latin, and indeed that was the case here. In fact hito evolved from Latin fictus, an old past participle of the verb fīgere, in whose whose later past participle fixus we recognize fijo/fixed. A milestone and a boundary post are fixed in the ground, as is the post in the game of quoits, as were simple posts that people used as targets to shoot at. A landmark and something key are extended senses of ‘being fixed’ and therefore ‘stable, secure.’

Speaking of extended senses, the English verb fix originally meant (and still means) ‘to place securely,’ but from the fact that broken things are often repaired by reattaching and fastening loose parts, fix has taken on in American English the primary meaning ‘to repair.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Perhaps a hidden threeness

I had occasion the other day to look up the origin of English tress and found that there are various theories. What’s known is that English took the word from Old French tresse. That noun meant ‘a braid of hair,’ a sense that English tress still has, although the American Heritage Dictionary marks it archaic. The modern sense of tress, as given in the Oxford Dictionaries, is ‘a long lock of a woman’s hair.’

But back to the origin of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary says that Old French might have inherited tresse from Vulgar Latin *trichia, tricia ‘a rope, braid,’ which the Romans had taken from Greek trikhiā ‘a rope,’ based on  thrix or trikh- ‘hair.’ The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française offers that hypothesis and a couple of others. One, proposed by Gamillscheg, would go back to Frankish *thréhja, from the same root as Germanic words having to do with turning (and possibly related to Latin torquere). Another theory, proposed tentatively by Corominas, sees the Old French word as a relative of Spanish trenzar, which would have arisen from the Latin verb tertiāre, based on tertius ‘third.’ The semantic connection, of course, is that hair is typically braided into three strands, each of which makes up a third of a braid. As for Spanish trenzar, the DRAE follows the same semantic line and reconstructs a phonetically dictated Vulgar Latin *trinitiāre, which would have been based on Latin trīni ‘three each.’

In summary, it’s unclear whether Spanish trenza and English tress are cognates or merely one more pair of etymologically unrelated words, like día and day, that coincidentally (but strikingly) sound similar and mean the same thing.

© 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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