scalp and scalpel

The Primer diccionario general etimológico de la lengua española of 1881 defined escalplo as ‘la cuchilla con que los curtidores raspan el cuero,’ which is to say ‘the type of knife curriers use to scrape leather.’ The same dictionary categorized the one-vowel-longer escalpelo as a surgical term and gave its meaning as an ‘instrumento cortante que sirve para separar las partes menudas en la disección de un cadáver.’ English speakers will recognize the second definition as that of a scalpel. The Spanish and English surgical terms were taken from Latin scalpellum, the diminutive of a word that existed in two forms, scalper and scalprum, and that referred to any of various sharp cutting instruments. The noun was based on the verb scalpere, whose meanings were ‘to cut, carve, scrape, scratch, engrave.’

Sometimes a word in one language coincidentally means something in another. Take for example soy, which in Spanish means ‘I am’ but in English is ‘a certain species of bean.’ There’s clearly no connection between the two. The noun scalper, which we just saw meant in Latin ‘a sharp cutting instrument,’ exists in English too, where it designates ‘a person who scalps.’ Is it merely a coincidence, as with soy, that the word spelled scalper happens to mean something in Latin and English, or does the fact that both the Latin and English words have to do with cutting imply that they are somehow related? Let’s see.

The English noun scalper is based on scalp, which the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary defined stuffily as ‘that part of the integument of the head which is usually covered with hair.’ The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that English borrowed scalp from Scandinavian, where the word had descended from *skel-, one of surprisingly many Indo-European roots that meant ‘to cut.’ It turns out that Latin scalper (and therefore scalpellum) also descended from that Indo-European root. The conclusion—surprising to some—is that English scalp and scalpel, even though the first came from Scandinavian and the second from Latin, are related to each other. Though we may think the practice of scalping goes back no farther than the frontier days of European settlers in North America, Indo-European etymology tells us that the cutting off of scalps, whether of people or animals, goes back at least four to five thousands of years.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Currier and Ives « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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