When I used to think about the word savvy, which is a colloquial way of saying ‘know’ in English, I assumed that cowboys in the Southwest of the United States borrowed the word from the Spanish that had been spoken there since the 1500s. That goes to show how unsavvy I was. It’s most likely true that English savvy is a respelling of Spanish sabe (though French savez and Portuguese sabe are possible sources too), but the borrowing predates the cowboy era. Take, for example, the 1837 volume of Bentley’s Miscellany, published in England, which contained “Nights at Sea,” written by someone called The Old Sailor. In those reminiscences a character named Jack said “he don’t savvy the loom from the blade,” meaning that he didn’t know one of those things from the other. According to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary, English savvy first appeared at least as long ago as 1785, and the borrowing took place not in the United States but in the islands of the West Indies. The use of savvy as an adjective meaning ‘knowing a lot about something, well informed, shrewd’ goes back to at least 1905, and is now more common than the use of savvy as a verb and probably even as a noun.

Some English speakers annoy their listeners by ending way too many sentences with the tag question “you know?” (A prospective employer supposedly once followed up a job announcement with the statement “Those of the ‘you know’ persuasion need not apply.”) With that in mind, let me finish today’s posting not with a tag question but with a crazy passage of Spanglish from a story called “Captain Omnipotent,” by Edward Noble, published in the Pall Mall Magazine in London in 1903:

Aguardar! Stand fast !” he shouted. “Great Scot! remember you’re men. Murray! Jackson! Gasset! Heads of boats! Hold them back. Shoot if necessary — savvy? Yo mandar los marinaros tirar with los pistolets todos hombres who play the silly macaco . . . savvy? There’s oceans of time. Yo caree fumar—mira! Women and children first. . . . Bo’sun! hit that blazing coward. Hombre! Hombre! aguardar . . . there’s time, there’s time.”

The next paragraph began with the savvy observation: “He was so plainly, visibly nonchalant; his Spanish was so astonishingly full of surprises….”

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. machetelaw
    Dec 02, 2010 @ 21:01:30

    I love the word savvy, use it often.

    On another note, I saw this sign at a MoneyGram near my office:

    “Adiós, high fees.”

    Can “adiós” be used in English or is this an example of the clever use of Spanglish in advertising?


    • wordconnections
      Dec 03, 2010 @ 03:55:55

      I don’t find adiós in any of my English dictionaries, but people do use it colloquially and lightheartedly in English, as you pointed out with the MoneyGram sign. In contrast, the French equivalent, adieu, is in lots of English dictionaries. I’m for giving Spanish a chance to catch up.


      • Marta.
        Dec 22, 2013 @ 07:07:24

        Hi! I’m Spanish and I can tell you that there is a difference between “adiós” and the French “adieu”. The last one is not often used since it means a definitive goodbye. In fact, in dictionaries it is said “archaic, literary goodbye, quand on ne reviendra jamais”, the Spanish equivalent “hasta nunca” (with bad connotations) or something like “este adiós es definitivo”. So actually it is not a real equivalent =)

        Anyway, interesting entry! I was analysing the etymology and origins of “savvy”, so I found it very helping!

        Saludos desde España.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Dec 22, 2013 @ 09:07:38

          Hi, Marta. In this blog I deal primarily with etymological connections, e.g. the one among Spanish adiós, French adieu, Italian addio, and Portuguese adeus. As time passes, words often change their meanings and the contexts in which they’re used, both within a language and across languages. You’re a savvy observer to point out that Frenchadieu and Spanish adiós, even though they’re cognates, are no longer used in the same way. Así es la vida, c’est la vie.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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