The Spanish verb zumbar ‘to buzz, hum’ imitates the sound of what it represents, though the representation isn’t as good as it was before Spanish lost the voicing of its z. The matching noun is zumbido ‘a buzzing.’ Bees and other buzzing insects sound the same to English-hearing ears as to those accustomed to Spanish, so English independently created the similar zoom. Originally it was strictly a sound word, but from the flying about of buzzing insects, zoom added a sense of motion. That now predominates, and English speaks of zooming in on the details of a picture on a computer screen and of taking photographs with a zoom lens, which Spanish has borrowed as zoom. Back in the world of buzzing insects, Spanish has another sound word, zángano, which is ‘a male bee, a drone.’ From the fact that drones don’t do work the way female bees do, zángano has added the sense ‘a lazy person, a parasite.’ Contrary to entomology, Spanish allows the female zángana when the word is used in the figurative sense.
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman