The past three posts have dealt with words descended from the root of the Latin verb dolere ‘to feel pain.’ We’ve already noted that the associated Latin noun dolor ‘pain, suffering’ has passed with those meanings into Spanish, but English speakers will probably be surprised to find dolor in many English dictionaries as well, where the word is defined as ‘sorrow, grief, mental suffering or anguish.’ The online Collins English Dictionary marks the word as poetic, and I might add literary: an everyday English word it certainly isn’t. English acquired it, by the way, from Old French dolour, the cognate of Spanish dolor.

In addition to the dolorosa that we recently discussed, which as a noun took on the religious sense of an ‘Imagen de la Virgen María en la acción de dolerse por la muerte de Cristo,’ the phrase María de los dolores ‘Mary of Sorrows’ led to the use in Spanish of Dolores as a female name, and English has followed suit. Not many English-speaking parents are likely to name a daughter Sorrows, so we have to wonder how many of them who pick Dolores know what it means in Spanish. A Dictionary of First Names notes that most English-speaking parents who choose that name are Roman Catholic. In any case, anticipating a trend that has accelerated in recent decades, English speakers have long used the variant spellings Delores and Deloris.

A Dictionary of First Names also notes that Spanish Dolores gave rise to the nursery form Lola, which eventually took on a life of its own apart from its continuing use as a nickname for Dolores. From Lola, of course, came the diminutive Lolita, which Vladimir Nabokov chose as the eponymous title of his 1955 novel. According to the Wikipedia article about the book, its anti-hero Humbert Humbert used Lolita as his private nickname for the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Those familiar with the book or the movie made from it know that it led to muchos dolores, and not only for the character of Dolores.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    May 09, 2012 @ 21:49:07

    This is so interesting. One of my mother’s younger sisters was named Dolores. I have a photo of her grave but can’t find it just now, so I went to the web and found the 1925 census, which confirms the spelling of her name. (She was two years old at the time – Mom, the oldest, was six.)

    The family wasn’t Catholic. I think my grandmother just had a taste for unusual names: the four girls were Wanda, Maxine, Dolores and Lavonna. Of course, in 1925 those names might not have been so unusual. What is certain is that Dolores had her own portion of muchos dolores – she died early of alcoholism.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 10, 2012 @ 03:15:14

      Those names definitely strike me as an unusual foursome, probably a unique one; I’ve never even heard of Lavonna, though it’s the sort of name that in our times has become quite common in the black community. I’m sorry to hear that the Dolores in your family lived up—or down—to her name.


  2. georgettesullins
    May 10, 2012 @ 07:14:07

    I remember Bob Hope refer to his wife Dolores and I would think how ironic that he would be married to someone with that name. Since she was his wife for a very long time, and he referred to her often…I think there was a lot of happiness there. I like this addition to your “dolor” theme.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 10, 2012 @ 07:44:28

      The reaction you had as a Spanish speaker to the name Dolores is apparently different from the one Bob Hope had—or more likely he never had any reaction at all to the name per se. I think some or many English speakers who choose the name do so just for the sound of it. It’s not that different from Doris, which coincidentally is just one letter different from dores, the Portuguese cognate of dolores.


  3. shoreacres
    May 10, 2012 @ 07:36:58

    I’ve never known another Lavonna, either. I did a bit of looking in the scraps of family history I have and discovered it’s a family name.

    Do you remember my post about my g-g-great-grandfather David’s service on Matagorda Island during the Civil War? It turns out he had a sister, Mary Lavonna, who was born in 1834 in Jefferson County, Ohio. Both parents came from Ireland, so the name may be rooted there.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 10, 2012 @ 07:48:00

      A family name: that explains it. Although I hadn’t heard of Lavonna, it reminded me of Lavinia, which comes to us via the Romans. Let’s hope you’ll eventually track down Lavonna in Ireland.


  4. munchow
    May 10, 2012 @ 13:50:58

    This was great fun to read. Anyone listening to latin songs know the word dolor, but the fact that it’s also used just like that in English was past my knowledge. I had no idea that Lola was a derivation of Dolores neither. It’s great to learn something new.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 10, 2012 @ 14:05:09

      I’m with you when it comes to the great pleasure of learning. Until I did research for this post I hadn’t realized—or had forgotten—that English also uses dolor, even if it’s what linguists call a marked word. In any case, I’m glad you’re having fun here.


  5. dianeandjack
    May 11, 2012 @ 08:45:49

    Hi Steve! Guess what?! We named our Blue Heeler puppy Dolores! She is absolutely adorable and a delight. But I must admit she often causes me pain and suffering, as she gets soooo excited whenever she sees me or my husband, especially in the mornings after being away from us all night, that she can’t contain herself and continually tries to jump up on us, and nip and bite us. She also is so consumed with excitement whenever she sees any other human or animal forms, and she does the same thing. Needless to say, it can be frustrating, causing her owners much pain and suffering!!! We call her Dolly for short, and we just can’t help but to love her to pieces, even though she can be a real pain at times!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 11, 2012 @ 08:58:27

      What a coincidence! Sounds like me getting excited about etymology.

      I’m glad you mentioned Dolly as a nickname for Dolores. That’s increasingly the way people use Dolly, but it used to be primarily a nickname for Dorothy, just as Sally was for Sarah.


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