In Amado Nervo’s story “La yaqui hermosa,” mentioned a couple of posts back, I found the words “… callaban horas enteras, inmóviles como las hoscas piedras de su tierra,” which we might translate into English as “they would remain silent for hours on end, immobile like the dark rocks of their land.” While hosco means literally ‘dark brown,’ enough people find that color unattractive for hosco to have taken on the extended meanings ‘gruff, rough, sullen, unwelcoming, gloomy, menacing.’

One of the peculiarities of Spanish is that what started out in Latin as a word-initial f followed by a vowel often ended up as an h in modern Spanish. It’s hardly surprising, then, to learn that the Latin original of hosco was fuscus (yes, the vowels have shifted as well), which meant ‘dark, swarthy, tawny.’ I couldn’t think of an English word beginning with fusc- that might have been borrowed from the Latin original, but one advantage of certain online dictionaries is the ability to do wildcat searches. At onelook.com I searched for the string fusc*, where the asterisk can be replaced by any character or characters. I learned that English has indeed turned to Latin fuscus, changing it only slightly to create the adjective fuscous. The 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined fuscous as ‘brown or grayish black; darkish,’ and the word is in many current dictionaries as well (although WordPress insists on underlining it in red dots each time I type it).

From fuscus came the Latin verb fuscare ‘to darken, blacken.’ The addition of the intensifying prefix ob- created the verb obfuscare, from whose past participle English has borrowed the verb obfuscate. Latin obfuscare also existed in the assimilated version offuscare, and that’s the one that Spanish borrowed as ofuscar. As for semantics, ofuscar/obfuscate means ‘to darken’ in the sense ‘to obscure [there’s that ob- again], to make unclear, to confuse.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 19, 2012 @ 08:01:23

    In Mrs. Deutsche’s 8th grade English class, she was willing to try nearly anything to whomp up some interest in grammar and such. I still remember many of the “linguistic cheers” that we developed. They pop up at strange times, like now.

    “Two, four, six, eight – everyone alliterate” was pretty good, but so was “Two, four, six, eight – don’t let your writing obfuscate”.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 19, 2012 @ 08:57:00

      Those are two great chants for eighth-graders. I don’t know about the first, but I see plenty of evidence that you’ve internalized the second. (I’m fond of living up to the first.) I only wish more eighth-graders today knew words like alliterate and obfuscate.

      The Latin change that turned obfuscare into the variant offuscare lets us elderly eighth-grade language students chant: “Two, four, six, eight – everyone assimilate.”


  2. georgettesullins
    Apr 19, 2012 @ 16:43:06

    I remember that part of the story. A group of yaqui women were sent to the wife of a wealthy landowner who treated them with kindness (“Ahora se dejarían matar las cuatro por su ama, a la que adoran con ese fiel y conmovedor culto del indígena por quien lo trata bien.) The line you refer to comes before this one. It serves to reinforce how difficult it was to reach their spirit. But then she, the landowner’s wife did succeed If I interpret it correctly.
    All this leads up to the tragedy of the one who did not speak, who hid her face.


  3. Steve Schwartzman
    Apr 19, 2012 @ 16:48:35

    Thanks for having pointed me to the story, which was a springboard to this post about hosco.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
%d bloggers like this: