For English speakers, Spanish vilano is an example of what is called a false friend, a word in one language that coincidentally resembles a word in another, and that people may therefore make the mistake of misinterpreting. In this case, Spanish vilano does not mean ‘villain.’ I bring this up because I learned vilano only a few days ago, when I was putting together the post about diente de león/dandelion. Here’s how the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines diente de león:

Hierba de la familia de las Compuestas, con hojas radicales, lampiñas, de lóbulos lanceolados y triangulares, y jugo lechoso, flores amarillas de largo pedúnculo hueco, y semilla menuda con vilano abundante y blanquecino.

Plant in the Composite family, with basal leaves, hairless, with lanceolate triangular lobes, and milky juice, flowers yellow on a long, hollow stalk, and tiny seeds with abundant, whitish vilano.

People who know the dandelion—which is just about everyone—know that its flowers turn into puffballs of seeds, with each seed attached to a little “parachute” to help it blow away and take root elsewhere. By context, then, vilano must be that little “parachute.” Sure enough, here’s how the DRAE defines the word:

Apéndice de pelos o filamentos que corona el fruto de muchas plantas compuestas y le sirve para ser transportado por el aire.

An appendage made of hairs or filaments that crowns the fruit of many Composite plants and lets it get carried through the air.

Ah, I thought, I’ll bet vilano is connected to vello ‘down,’ which developed from Latin villus. But no, that would be another case of false friends. I was surprised to find that vilano is an altered form of milano, which is the kind of bird that in English is ‘a kite.’ As best I can make out, the extended Spanish usage of milano to mean what English-speaking botanists call ‘a pappus’ was by analogy with the way a kite flies through the air—and compare how English likewise extended the meaning of kite, though in a different way, from ‘a type of bird’ to ‘a type of flying toy.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 15, 2012 @ 16:46:08

    I can’t help laughing at the thought of all the people in the world who do consider the dandelion to be the very essence of a villain – perhaps outnumbered only by those who’d happily tell it to go fly a kite!


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Apr 15, 2012 @ 17:43:10

    See, etymology can make people laugh—and now you’re making us do so when you talk about those who’d happily tell dandelions to go fly a kite.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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