On my other blog this week I showed a picture of a bluebell gentian bud and described it as svelte. Now, English isn’t exactly swimming in words that begin with sv-, so it’s hardly a surprise to find that svelte was borrowed from another language. In this case the language was Italian, where the form of the word was svelto. It was the past participle of svellere ‘to stretch out,’ so something svelte was conceived as having been stretched out and therefore made slender. We no longer require there to have been any stretching, and svelte is now a good description for something or someone that is slender, graceful, lithe, stylish. From the notion of ‘stylish’ English has added the secondary senses ‘suave, urbane, sophisticated.’
Italian svellere developed from Vulgar Latin *exvellere, a form that put back the original x in classical Latin evellere, a phonetically simplified compound made from ex- ‘out’ and vellere ‘to pluck, pull out, tear out.’ Latin evellere therefore originally meant the same as the basic verb, though with some added emphasis on the ‘out.’ By the time of Italian svellere, the semantics had shifted from ‘pluck out’ to ‘pull’ to ‘stretch out.’
Spanish, which can’t abide s followed by a consonant at the beginning of a word*, also borrowed Italian svelto but added its standard supporting vowel, the result being esbelto. The corresponding abstract noun is esbeltez, for which English uses svelteness.
Position makes a big difference. Within a word, Spanish sometimes allows surprisingly many consonants in a cluster, as we see in a word like construcción.
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman