Chinche

In my other blog a few days ago I featured a plant with the scientific name Cimicifuga. I recognized that as botanical Latin for ‘makes bedbugs flee,’ with the first element coming from the Latin stem cimic- ‘bedbug.’ That noun evolved to Spanish chinche, which in addition to its literal sense has taken on the colloquial meaning of ‘an annoying, bothersome person.’ That sense is also conveyed by the adjective chinchoso and the verb chinchar, which means ‘to bother, to annoy.’

Spanish chinche has passed into English as chinch, a word found primarily in the South and Midland of the United States. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Midland as ‘A region of the United States whose northern border extends roughly from southern New Jersey to Illinois and whose southern border extends roughly from North Carolina to eastern Oklahoma, viewed especially as a dialect region of American English.’ That said, I remember growing up with chinch bugs (the phrase, not the insects) on Long Island.

Regional English chinchy, by the way, which means ‘stingy,’ is unrelated. It’s a variant of chintzy, which has its origins in the fabric from India known at chintz.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

precio

Precio, the Spanish word for ‘price,’ evolved directly from the synonymous Latin noun pretium. It’s natural to assume that English price traces back to the same Latin source, and so it does, via the intermediary of Old French pris. There’s a surprise, though, in the form of an English doublet, praise. Middle English preise was based on the Old French verb preisier, which developed from Late Latin pretiāre ‘to prize,’ which had been coined on the root of pretium. To praise, then, is etymologically to attach a price to something as a token of its worth. But wait: prize itself came into being as a variant of Old French pris, so we’re really dealing with English triplets. Praise be to etymology.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

vapulear

A glance at The Superior Person’s Book of Words sent me scurrying to a dictionary to find out what vapulation means—or at most meant, because the word is hardly current now and probably never was. Even as far back as 1828, Noah Webster noted in his dictionary that vapulation was no longer in use, but he nevertheless defined it as ‘the act of beating or whipping.’ The 1913 Webster’s repeated that definition and likewise called the word obsolete, but also noted that it came from the Latin verb vapulare, which a Latin-English dictionary translates as ‘to get a whipping, to be flogged, to be beaten.’ As an example of how this rare word has been used, consider this passage from Derek Hudson’s 1943 book Thomas Barnes of the Times:

According to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, Spanish borrowed Latin vapulare as the almost unchanged vapular, though the variant vapulear is now apparently the usual form; the dictionary gives its first meaning as ‘zarandear de un lado a otro a alguien o algo,’ i.e. ‘to shake or knock someone or something from side to side.’ A second meaning is ‘golpear o dar repetidamente contra alguien o algo,’ i.e. ‘to hit or strike someone or something.’ The verb has the figurative sense ‘to criticize harshly’ (which accords with that of vapulation in Thomas Barnes of the Times). The corresponding Spanish noun vápulo is ‘a whipping, flogging, beating, shaking’; Cervantes used the word twice in Don Quijote.

As for the English verb vapulate, it appeared in the 1806 Dictionary of the Synonymous Words and Technical Terms in the English language. Author James Leslie included it as one of many words meaning ‘to beat.’ Here’s the full list, which I trust will be a pleasure and not a vapulation for you to read: “To pommel, to bang, to sugillate, to tew, to thwack, to trounce, to vanquish, to vapulate, to repercuss, to buffet, to curry, to firk, to fease or feaze, to lamm, to bray, to drub, to baste, to batter, to maul, to nubble, to belabour, to bump, to cane.”

I first investigated vapular/vapulate in 2011. In doing a search now, five years later, I was surprised to find a page on the Internet that raises the question of the difference between beat and vapulate. I’m sure that question comes up a lot.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

want

The common English verb want may not seem to have any relatives in Spanish, but there are some. The first step in finding connections is to realize that the ‘desire’ sense of want isn’t the original one. The original meaning is still alive in the expression to want for that means ‘to lack.’ Lacking something implies being in need, and that need creates a desire for the thing. So it was that the meaning of want expanded to include the ‘desire’ sense that has become the predominant one.

As basic as English want is, the word came into the language from Old Norse vanta. The American Heritage Dictionary traces that back to a suffixed form of the Indo-European root euə-, which meant ‘to leave, abandon,’ and which had derivatives expressing the notions ‘lacking, empty.’ One native English derivative is wane. The Latin derivative vānus, meaning ’empty,’ is the source of Spanish vano and, via Old French, English vain.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Auto-antonyms

Once in a while a word comes to have opposite meanings. The adjective especioso/specious is such a word. Compare the pairs of definitions in the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española:

1. Apparently right; superficially fair, just, or correct, but not so in reality; appearing well at first view; plausible; as, specious reasoning; a specious argument.
2. Presenting a pleasing appearance; pleasing in form or look; showy.

1. Hermoso, precioso, perfecto.
2. Aparente, engañoso.

Here are the main translations that Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gave for speciōsus:

Good-looking, showy, handsome, beautiful, splendid, brilliant.

In a secondary definition of the Latin adjective we see the genesis, even in Roman times, of the negative sense:

Well-sounding, plausible, specious.

In other words, something especioso/specious looks pleasant enough and is therefore plausible (i.e. applaudable), but someone has created the attractive appearance as a way to hide the truth.

The negative sense of specious has driven out the ‘showy’ one in modern English, but apparently not in Spanish, where the DRAE gives the positive definition first. And botanists have preserved the positive sense in species names like Ungnadia speciosa and Oenothera speciosa.

As for Latin speciōsus itself, that adjective was based on the root found in the verb specere ‘to look at,’ with past participle spectus, about which much more could be said.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Dum spiro spero

The word-playing Latin motto Dum spīro spēro means “As long as I breathe, I hope.” Spanish speakers have only to add a prothetic e- to that last verb to convert it to its modern descendant espero, the first-person singular present-tense form of esperar ‘to hope.’ The corresponding modern Spanish noun is esperanza, created with a suffix, in contrast to the simple Latin noun spēs.

The opposite of Spanish esperar is desesperar, which finds its counterpart in English despair, taken from Old French. Spanish also used to have the shorter desperar, which survives in its past participle desperado, which English has borrowed alongside the more common doublet desperate, borrowed from Latin dēspērātus.

Back on the positive side, Latin prosperāre ‘to cause a thing to succeed’ has given us prosperar/prosper and the corresponding adjective próspero/prosperous. And therein lies a clue to a native English connection that few people would suspect, primarily because of a semantic change. The Indo-European root underlying all these words of ultimately Latin origin was *spē-, which meant ‘to thrive, prosper.’ That root gave rise to Old English spēd ‘success,’ the forerunner of the modern form speed. Even in Old English one sense of the word had been ‘swiftness,’ presumably because people who are quick to follow up on opportunities or who work rapidly are more likely to succeed. One survivor of that sense of speed is the compound interjection Godspeed, meaning ‘may God allow (you) to prosper.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Weird

The Wikipedia article on psychology includes this:

In 2010, a group of researchers reported a systemic bias in psychology studies towards WEIRD (“western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic”) subjects. Although only 1/8 people worldwide fall into the WEIRD classification, the researchers claimed that 60–90% of psychology studies are performed on WEIRD subjects. The article gave examples of results that differ significantly between WEIRD subjects and tribal cultures, including the Müller-Lyer illusion.

Of course the acronym WEIRD plays off the normal English word weird, meaning ‘strange, unusual, odd.’ Most native English speakers don’t know that that wasn’t the original sense of the word, but the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth provide a clue to the earlier meaning. Those three characters were the Fates, women who could tell how the future would turn out. In fact the sense of weird turns on that notion of turning out, because the underlying Indo-European root *wer- meant ‘to turn.’

Another descendant of that Indo-European root was the Latin verb for ‘to turn,’ vertere, with past participle versus (which English uses unchanged as a preposition meaning ‘turned against’). It turns out that Spanish and English have acquired many words from that Latin verb, some examples being invertir/invert; revertir/revert; pervertir/pervert; convertir/convert; conversación/conversation, in which talk turns back and forth between two people; aniversario/anniversary, which we celebrate each year when the earth returns to the same place in its orbit; and versión/version, which is the way something has turned out after changes have been made to an earlier stage.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

empinar

It was way back in 1969, when I lived in Honduras, that I learned the Spanish verb empinar, which means ‘to lift, to raise, to set upright.’ In particular, I remember someone using it in the phrase empinar el codo, ‘to lift up your elbow,’ which was a colloquial way of saying ‘to drink an alcoholic beverage.’

Not long ago, after close to half a century, I suddenly had an intuition that empinar must be based on pino ‘pine tree,’ given the way pine trees typically rise so tall and straight and impart a sense of upward movement. Sure enough, when I checked the verb’s etymology I found my hunch was correct. I also learned that Spanish uses pino not just as a noun but also as an adjective meaning ‘steep and straight.’ The example given in the DRAE is “La cuesta del monte es muy pina.”

That last word might make you wonder whether there’s any connection to Spanish piña ‘pineapple.’ The source of pino was the synonymous Latin pīnus, whose adjectival form was pīneus. The feminine pīnea did indeed evolve to Spanish piña, the ‘piney’ fruit. The connection is that the patches on the exterior of a pineapple have a spiral growth pattern similar to those of the elements on a pine cone. English also recognized the similarity in pineapple, where apple takes on a generic sense of ‘fruit.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

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

un-

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

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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.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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