The last post discussed a word used in the Philippines, tarantado, which had been shortened slightly from Spanish atarentado ‘stunned, dazed.’ One question raised but not answered in that post was how atarantado lost its first syllable when it passed into the languages of the Philippines. Linguists have a name for that process: the dropping of one or more sounds as the beginning of a word is called aféresis/aph(a)eresis, a Greek word that means literally ‘a taking away.’ In the case of atarentado, the word stress falls three syllables after the initial a-, which is therefore weakly pronounced; the next step was for Filipinos to drop it altogether. (For a Spanish example of aféresis, consider how ahora gave rise to the shortened ora; for an English example, consider how a raccoon has become for some speakers a coon.)
Yesterday’s post didn’t explain apheresis, but it did explain that Old Italian attarentato, the predecessor of Spanish atarentado, developed from the notion of a person being stunned by the bite of a tarantula, which is a type of large, hairy spider that had previously gotten its name from the southeastern Italian city of Taranto. The inhabitants of that city must have had vivid imaginations, because Taranto also lent its name to the condition called tarantismo/tarantism. A little over a century ago, the aptly named Century Dictionary defined the term this way: ‘A dancing mania; specifically and originally, a dancing mania of the south of Italy in those who had been bitten by a tarantula, or thought they had been, and their imitators.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary had this definition: ‘A nervous affection producing melancholy, stupor, and an uncontrollable desire to dance. It was supposed to be produced by the bite of the tarantula, and considered to be incapable of cure except by protracted dancing to appropriate music.’
The type of rapid dance that Italians from the 1400s through the 1600s believed could cure tarantism came to be known, appropriately, as a tarantella. Spanish and English have borrowed the Italian word, with Spanish spelling it tarantela. In the centuries since then, the connection to tarantulas has largely been lost, and anyone can compose, play, or dance a tarantella.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman