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

A drop in the gutta

In a blog post in March, in connection with two photographs of fungi, nature photographer Steve Gingold introduced the biological term guttation, which he explained as ‘sweat-like moisture.’ Based on the context and the root of that fancy word, Spanish speakers may well make the connection to gota ‘drop,’ and they would be right to do so. Spanish gota derives from Latin gutta, which also meant ‘drop,’ and which architects have fancifully borrowed to mean (in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary) ‘one of a series of small ornaments in the shape of truncated cones used on a Doric entablature.’ Pharmacists also use gutta, this time literally—they can’t afford to mess around when preparing medicines, can they?—to mean ‘a drop.’

For English speakers who drop an r at the end of a syllable, Latin gutta sounds a lot like English gutter, and it should. English acquired the word from Old French gotier, based on gote (modern French goutte): a gutter is a trough to channel drops of rain coming off a roof.

Turning back to Spanish, we note that gotear means ‘to drip,’ a goteo is ‘a dripping,’ and a gotera is ‘a leak, drip, trickle.’ Less obviously related semantically, at least until the connection gets pointed out, is the verb agotar ‘to exhaust, use up, run out of.’ The etymological sense, as should be clear now, is ‘to drip away.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Taking refuge in etymology

The last post dealt with a few descendants of the Latin verb fugere ‘to flee’ and the noun fuga ‘the act of fleeing,’ so let’s continue. ‘A person who flees’ is a fugitivo/fugitive. Another offshoot is refugio/refuge, which is etymologically ‘[a place] to flee back [to].’ English has a doublet in Latin refugium, which is a biological term for (in the definition of the Oxford Dictionaries) ‘An area in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions, especially glaciation.’

There are other “fleeful” scientific relatives. A centrifugio/centrifuge is ‘a machine that spins and causes a substance placed within it to literally ‘flee the center.’ A febrifugio/febrifuge is ‘a medicine that causes a fever to flee,’ so to speak; a vermifugio/vermifuge does likewise for parasitic worms in the intestines. A calcifuga/calcifuge is ‘a plant that doesn’t grow well in calcium-rich soil.’

English calls ‘a person who flees in search of a refuge’ a refugee, while Spanish took the equivalent prófugo from a different compound of Latin fugere. With yet another prefix—Latin subter, whose literal meaning was ‘beneath’ and whose extended sense was ‘secretly’—we have subterfugio/subterfuge. The 1913 Webster’s defined the word as: ‘That to which one resorts for escape or concealment; an artifice employed to escape censure or the force of an argument, or to justify opinions or conduct; a shift; an evasion.’ Politician, thy name is Subterfuge.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The famous writer O. Henry (who coincidentally called Austin home for several years) wrote a sad short story called “The Furnished Room,” which begins: “Restless, shifting, fugacious as time itself is a certain vast bulk of the population of the red brick district of the lower West Side.” Many English speakers won’t recognize the fancy word fugacious, but Spanish speakers see the similarity to the fugaz that is their less-hoity-toity cognate. Based on the Latin noun fuga ‘the act of fleeing,’ the Latin adjective fugax, with stem fugac-, is the source of the synonymous  fugaz/fugacious that means ‘of short duration, fleeting, not lasting.’

Classical music has adopted Latin fuga, which French and therefore English have turned into fugue, as the name of ‘a musical form in which a melody appears in one voice and then “flees” successively to other voices.’ From the root of fuga Latin created the verb fugere ‘to flee.’ That became fugīre in Vulgar Latin, and then, given the peculiar transformation of an initial f to h that marked the development of Spanish, evolved to Spanish huir. To replace the original Latin fuga, Spanish has adopted the feminine past participle of huir as the noun huida that means ‘an act of fleeing; flight.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman



One afternoon I was checking the DRAE to see if Spanish might have a relative of the French word riquiqui that means ‘teensy, itty-bitty, very small.’ I didn’t find one, but in the process of looking I was led to the Spanish word quinqui, which the DRAE defines as a ‘persona que pertenece a cierto grupo social marginado de la sociedad por su forma de vida,’ which is to say a ‘person who belongs to a certain social group marginalized by [the greater] society because of its lifestyle.’ If that still doesn’t ring a bell, all you have to do is look at English kinky to see where Spanish got its word.

The social sense of quinqui is one of two conveyed by English kinky, and it’s a figurative one. The literal meaning is ‘tightly curled or twisted,’ with the -y ending making an adjective out of the noun kink, whose meanings include ‘a bend, twist curl; a muscle spasm; a flaw; a whim; an eccentric idea; a bizarre or unconventional sexual practice.’

Although kink sounds as if it could be a native English word, English borrowed it from Dutch, where it meant ‘a twist in a rope.’

© Steven Schwartzman


The word svelte is rare in English because of its sv spelling, and the sb in the Spanish equivalent esbelto is only somewhat less rare (there’s esbirro ‘henchman’ and esbozo ‘sketch’, for example). Esbelto/svelte, which means ‘gracefully slender, slim’, was borrowed from Italian svelto, the past participle of the verb svellere ‘to stretch out’. That verb developed from Vulgar Latin *exvellere, where the familiar prefix ex- meant ‘out of’, and Latin vellere meant, with respect to an animal, ‘to pluck, pull out, remove the hair or feathers’.

You may be hard-pressed to think of any relatives, but if I tell you the past participle of Latin vellere was vulsus, you can easily see the relationship to the familiar words convulsar/convulse and revulsión/revulsion. There’s also the less-common evulsión/evulsion, which means ‘the act of plucking out’, and which contains the same two semantic elements found in esbelto/svelte. It’s fair to say that some people find evulsion a cause of revulsion.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Footloose in the Antipodes

I was recently looking at a blog by a woman in Australia who enjoys hiking, and a would-be title for a post popped into my head: “Footloose in the Antipodes.” For inhabitants of Europe and North America, the Antipodes (note the capital letter) are Australia and New Zealand. More generally, antipodes (note the lower case) are two places opposite each other on the globe. Spanish similarly has antípoda, whose written accent coincidentally tells us that the four-syllable English antipodes is likewise stressed on its second syllable. In terms of semantics, however, Spanish antípoda, according to the DRAE, ‘Se dice de cualquier habitante del globo terrestre con respecto a otro que more en lugar diametralmente opuesto,’ so the Spanish word refers to the inhabitants of opposite places rather than to the places themselves. A little more loosely, the adjective antípoda can mean ‘que se contrapone totalmente a alguien o algo,’ which English might translate as ‘contrarian.’ In fact the DRAE explains that the adverbial phrase en los (or las) antípodas means ‘en lugar o posición radicalmente opuesta o contraria.’

In terms of etymology, antípoda/antipodes comes via Latin from the plural of Greek antipous, a compound meaning ‘opposite feet.’ I know, it would take a bowlegged giant standing astride our earthly globe for the geographical meaning to make sense, but we’ll have to cut the ancient Greeks some slack. We’ll also have to point out that Greek pous was the cognate of Latin pes (and therefore Spanish pie) as well as native English foot, with all of them descended from the Indo-European root *ped- that meant ‘foot.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

подсолнечник Максимилиана

Hold your horses, pardner (as people in old American westerns used to say), this really is a post in the Spanish-English Word Connections blog. Recently I noticed that on my other blog, which deals with nature photography, the query подсолнечник Максимилиана (podsolnechnik Maksimiliana) on a search engine had brought someone to a post of mine showing a Maximilian sunflower.

Let’s look at that first Russian word, подсолнечник. The -ник (-nik) at the end is a suffix, familiar to some of you from Russian or Russian-imitated words like sputnik, peacenik, kibbutznik, and beatnik. The под (pod-) is a prefix that means ‘under.’ The heart of подсолнечник comes from the Russian word солнце (solntse), which means ‘sun,’ and in which Spanish speakers can pick out their native cognate for ‘sun,’ sol. Astronomically minded English speakers recognize the capitalized Sol, which this time is Latin, as the name of the sun when it’s treated as the center of the solar system we live in.

The American Heritage Dictionary goes back farther and traces the Latin noun to the Indo-European root for ‘sun,’ *sāwel-. In the Germanic languages that final consonant shifted to another one with approximately the same point of articulation in the mouth, so that the native English cognate of Latin (and Spanish) sol is sun. English uses sun as the name of a pagan god to name Sunday (and similarly does for all its day names), while Spanish has changed its two weekend day names to make them non-pagan.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

ten and ten times ten

The Spanish word ciento, which gets shortened to cien before a noun, means ‘a hundred.’ The synonymous Latin original was centum, whose cent- corresponds to the hund- in the native English cognate hundred (with the -red developing from a Germanic root that meant ‘reckoning, number,’ senses similar to those of the apparent Latin cognate ratio).

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Latin centum, which was pronounced kentum, had developed from Indo-European *dkm-tom, whose first element led to Latin decem and Spanish diez as well as English ten. It’s not clear what sense the Indo-European suffix -tom conveyed in its own right, but the compound *dkm-tom ultimately came to mean ‘ten groups of ten.’§ As for form, the d of *dkm-tom was eventually lost, and the -kmt- of the remainder went on to produce Latin cent(um) and English hund(red).

The Modern Latin phrase per centum ‘for [each] hundred’ has become Spanish por ciento. English originally borrowed the Latin phrase in full, then began abbreviating it per cent., with a period to show that cent. was indeed an abbreviation. Only in the early part of the 20th century—another derivative, like Spanish centuria, of Latin centum—did English drop the period, writing at first per cent, then the combined percent that is the usual current form.

The French descendant of Latin centum is cent, which Americans have adopted as a monetary unit worth one one-hundredth of a dollar. The analog in Spanish-speaking countries is the centavo, or in some countries the centésimo.

§ On that score, I have to report that one day in the early 1970s I was in a supermarket on Long Island and overheard a nearby woman tell her daughter that ten times ten is a hundred, which is true enough, and that a hundred times a hundred is a thousand, which is not. Etymology could have ridden to the rescue there, because Germanic *thūs-hundi‑, the ancestor of English thousand, meant ‘a swollen hundred,’ which is to say ‘ten times a hundred.’

© 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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