Ol’ man etymology, he jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The last post, about Convolvulus and convólvulo, traced those words, like Spanish volver, back to Latin volvere, whose fundamental meaning was ‘to roll, to turn around.’ Before going any farther, let me turn to an observation about verbs. Verbs in Spanish and Latin have many forms, which incorporate features like person (I versus you versus it), number (singular versus plural), tense (present, past, future, etc.), mood (indicative versus subjunctive). When we want to talk in general about a given verb, or when we want to look up a verb in a dictionary, we have to pick some specific form of the verb to represent the verb as a whole. In Spanish that’s generally the infinitive, so we talk, for instance, about the verb volver rather than about the verb vuelvo or volvieras or volvíamos. In contrast, when it comes to Latin, there’s a long tradition of using the first-person singular present indicative form of a verb to represent the verb as a whole, so that to look up the ancestor of Spanish volver in my Latin dictionary I have to search not for volvere but for volvo, literally ‘I roll.’

Even readers of this column who have never studied Latin will recognize volvo, with a capital letter, as the name of a Swedish automobile company. Is that a coincidence, or is there a relationship between volvo and Volvo? In particular, did the car maker pick that name to send a message about the car’s reliability, as if the car were saying “I just keep rolling along”? Eager to find out, I turned to the Internet. In a Wikipedia article that gives the origins of some company names, I found this about Volvo: “from the Latin word volvo, which means ‘I roll’. It was originally a name for a ball bearing being developed by SKF.” The same article noted that SKF is “from Svenska Kullagerfabriken AB, a Swedish manufacturer founded in 1907.” Another Wikipedia article goes on to explain that “in 1924, Assar Gabrielsson, a SKF Sales Manager, and Engineer Gustav Larson, the two founders, decided to start construction of a Swedish car. Their vision was to build cars that could withstand the rigors of Sweden’s rough roads and cold temperatures.”

So yes, Volvo, though originally applied to a ball bearing rather than a people-bearing vehicle, is from the Latin, and a Spanish speaker loyal to that make of car and to etymology can proclaim: “Vuelvo a Volvo.”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

P.S.  I’ve spelled the words in the title of today’s post the same way Oscar Hammerstein II did in “Ol’ Man River“—except, of course, for etymology, which for some strange reason he didn’t use even once in Show Boat.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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