One of the dozens of words that English has borrowed directly from Spanish is mochila. The great 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave this definition of the word, which it noted was used in the western part of the U.S.: ‘A large leather flap which covers the saddletree.’ (The same dictionary explained that a saddletree is ‘the frame of a saddle.’) The definition of mochila in the 1997 Random House Unabridged Dictionary is ‘a flap of leather on the seat of a saddle, used as a covering and sometimes as a base to which saddlebags are attached.’
The English meaning of mochila differs from any of those in Spanish. One is ‘a leather-lined wooden box carried on the backs of hunters, soldiers, and travelers, and used to transport game, provisions, clothing, etc.’ A second, serving a similar purpose and similarly carried, is ‘a knapsack.’ A third, and the most common today, is ‘a backpack.’
If mochila wasn’t originally an English word, neither was it a Spanish one. Spanish created mochila from the mochil that means ‘a boy used by farmers or other rural workers to carry provisions.’ That word had come into Spanish from Basque motxil, a diminutive of motil ‘boy.’ The fact that Basque motxil, pronounced mochil, sounds similar to and means the same as Spanish muchacho, might lead some people to think the two words are related, but the fact that the Basque original was motil seems to rule out any etymological connection. Stay tuned for more on muchacho next time.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman