A six-part series that began on my other blog on January 20 dealt with a type of grape vine known as the mustang, a word that came into English from Spanish. To trace the origin of that word, we have to go back to the Medieval Latin phrase animalia mixta, which meant ‘mixed animals,’ but especially ‘cattle.’ As often happens (compare how the English phrase a flat tire gets colloquially shortened to a flat), the Medieval Latin phrase came to be represented by its adjective alone, with the result that Old Spanish mesta meant ‘animals owned by a community.’ Later the sense shifted from the animals to their communal owners, and the capitalized Mesta came into use for, in the definition of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, ‘Agregado o reunión de los dueños de ganados mayores y menores, que cuidaban de su crianza y pasto, y vendían para el común abastecimiento.’ The online Span¡shD!ct gives these definitions of Mesta:
Stray animals were considered community property, and based on mesta the term mestengo was created to designate ‘wild or stray animals’; from mestengo came the English mustang that is ‘a type of wild horse,’ and then incidentally ‘a type of grape vine,’ though the connection isn’t clear. After the time when English borrowed mustang, the Spanish word developed into two modern forms, mesteño and mostrenco. As if that weren’t enough, Spanish has borrowed back the English word as mustang or mustango; a recent English-Spanish dictionary even translates English mustang as mesteño mustang!
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman