The last post dealt with English zoom, originally a word that imitated the buzzing sound of a bee or other insect. Spanish has an etymologically unrelated but similarly onomatopoeic verb, zumbar, which means to ‘to buzz, to hum’ (and of course English buzz and hum also imitate sounds). Joan Corominas dates the first appearance of zumbar to 1495, and I’ll add that zumbar doesn’t do as good a job of representing the sound as it probably did back then, since Spanish has lost the voicing of its z. (English speakers would be taken aback to hear that a bee busses rather than buzzes.) Because talking humorously about someone is a “buzzing” of sorts, zumbar has added the meaning ‘to tease, to make fun of.’ Apparently based on the sound of an insect flying toward the listener, zumbar can also mean ‘to get close,’ and in that sense it’s similar to the movement-related meaning of English zoom.
The noun corresponding to zumbar is zumbido rather than the *zumbado that might be expected based on the theme vowel of the verb.
Another z-word from the world of buzzing insects is Spanish zángano ‘a male bee, a drone,’ which Corominas also dates to 1495. From the fact that drones don’t do work the way female bees do, zángano has added the sense ‘a lazy person, a parasite.’ Contrary to the facts of biology, Spanish allows the female zángana, which shows the power that etymology can have over entomology.
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman