The previous post dealt with the Spanish verb estibar ‘to cram, stuff, stow [cargo],’ which came from Latin stipare ‘to crowd, cram, press together, compress, pack.’ In addition to stipare, Latin had the (rare) compound constipare ‘to crowd together,’ which became the much more common Old Spanish constipar ‘to compress, clog, stop up.’ In modern Spanish the verb has become reflexive, with constiparse having come to mean ‘to catch a cold,’ because the nasal passages of a person suffering from a cold get congested.

English has also turned to Latin constipare; a couple of centuries ago Noah Webster gave as the first definition of constipate: ‘To crowd or cram into a narrow compass; to thicken or condense.’ Webster’s second definition was: ‘To stop, by filling a passage, and preventing motion; as, to constipate capillary vessels.’ Only as a third sense did he give what has since then become the verb’s primary (and for many people its only) meaning: ‘To fill or crowd the intestinal canal, and make costive.’ And if costive isn’t familiar, it can be made so by removing its etymological disguise. English took the adjective costive from Old French costeve, the past participle of costever, which was the form to which Latin constipare had evolved in Old French.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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