With respect to a circle, students of geometry learn that the line called the secante/secant is one that cuts across the circle in two places. The name isn’t arbitrary: the word is the present participle of the Latin verb secare ‘to cut,’ so the secant line is a ‘cutting’ line. As Latin evolved to Spanish, secare became segar, whose basic meaning is ‘to cut down ripe grain or other plants with a sickle, scythe, or other dedicated instrument; to reap, to harvest, to crop.’ The verb can also mean ‘to cut off something that sticks out,’ including, for someone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, a head. More generally segar is ‘to cut off or interrupt quickly or abruptly.’

Spanish segador is literally ‘someone or something that harvests,’ but the word has a specialized meaning in zoology, where it designates what English has similarly called a harvestman, though the term daddy-longlegs is more familiar to most English speakers. The creature in question is an invertebrate that people might at first glance take for a long-legged spider, and although it does have eight legs, its tiny body has only one section, unlike the two major sections (abdomen and cephalothorax) of a spider. The name segador/harvestman apparently comes from the resemblance of each of the little animal’s elongated, thin, conspicuously jointed legs to a scythe or sickle.

A harvestman on a harvester

Before I cut off this post, I’d like to point out that English sickle, mentioned twice in the paragraphs above in conjunction with cutting grain or other plants, developed from Old English sicol. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed that word from Vulgar Latin sicila, a variant of the classical Latin secula that had the same root as secare ‘to cut’ and that meant ‘a sickle.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Watching Seasons
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 10:11:02

    Harvestmen have always fascinated me, as does etymology in general. I had no idea that sickle was related to secula!


  2. wordconnections
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 10:23:25

    That connection came as news to me too! Like you, I’m interested in the unlikely combination of nature and etymology. This etymology column has been running for nine months now, but just two weeks ago I started a blog devoted to nature photography, particularly of native plants. You can have a look at

    I’ve already snuck some nature photos into the etymology blog (like the harvestman), and it probably won’t be long before I sneak a bit of etymology into the photo blog, though I try to keep words to a minimum there in deference to the pictures.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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