On my other blog today I featured a green anole, which is a type of lizard found across the southeastern United States. Spanish lagarto and English lizard are indeed cognates, with both of them ultimately going back to Latin lacertus, which existed in the feminine form lacerta as well. Curiously, there was also a Latin lacertus that meant ‘the muscular part of the arm, from the shoulder to the elbow.’ Whether those two Latin nouns were the same word isn’t clear. Perhaps certain lizards reminded the Romans of the musculature of an arm—or vice versa—and so the word ended up with an extended meaning.
When the Latin word evolved to Old French, the c before e gradually came to represent the expected s sound, as we see in Old French lesarde. That consonant ultimately added the voicing of the surrounding vowels, resulting in modern French lézarde. English borrowed its version of the word from Old French, not modern French, but the English form likewise now shows the change from s to z.
The Spanish form lagarto is puzzling until we learn that it developed not from Latin lacertus but from Vulgar Latin *lacartus. That starting point explains why the k sound of the c didn’t become an s sound the way it did in Old French. Spanish retained the guttural quality of the consonant, which eventually picked up the voicing of the vowels that flanked it and became a g sound.
Although this blog focuses mostly on Spanish and English, I’ll add that French has formed a reflexive verb from its noun lézard: with reference to something like a painted wall, se lézarder means ‘to crack and peel so as to end up looking like the skin of a lizard.’ We can propose a Spanish verb lagartarse with that meaning, but will anyone use it? My Harper Collins Spanish Unabridged Dictionary does list an informal verb lagartear, which it says is used in the Cono Sur to mean ‘to pin down, to pinion,’ presumably from the way some lizards press their bodies down.’
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman