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


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


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


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


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

Previous Older Entries

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

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 337 other followers

%d bloggers like this: