Last year’s posting entitled “A quickie” dealt with Spanish vivir ‘to live.’ In the same way that the English verb live gave rise to the adjective lively, Spanish vivir has its corresponding adjective vivo, which can mean not only ‘alive’ but also ‘lively’ and ‘possessing a quick and lively mind.’ The matching noun is viveza, whose senses include ‘acuteness, perspicacity’ and ‘witticism.’

In the 1800s, Spanish began using the noun tío ‘uncle’ in combination with the adjective vivo in such a way that a listener might conclude that Vivo was the name of someone’s uncle; compare, for a flight of fancy, the Uncle Sam of the United States. If the American Uncle Sam represents a country, the Spanish Tío Vivo, or Tío-Vivo as it came to be written, or tiovivo as people spell it now, refers to what English calls descriptively ‘a merry-go-round.’ The Spanish semantics are troublesome, but etymologist Joan Corominas took a stab at an explanation. He wrote that the term “aludirá a la viveza del ‘tío’ que tuvo la idea de explotar este aparato en una feria” (“it would allude to the quick-wittedness of the ‘uncle’ who thought of using the device in a carnival”). Those who would like to read a longer explanation in Spanish, though I can’t vouch for its authenticity, can turn to a chapter in Costumbres populares, written by Sofía Tarilan and published in Madrid in 1880.

Technology has continued to improve merry-go-rounds, but as long ago as 1906, in the novel Paradox, Rey, Spanish writer Pío Baroja said this: “A mi dadme los viejos, los viejos caballos del Tío Vivo.”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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