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

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 06:18:14

    My cat is giving me the eye, curious about true out-loud laughter so early in the morning. It was caused by that meaning – “stretched out, made slender”. I just was transported back to the basement of the Methodist church of my youth, and our taffy pulls. I’ve never thought of taffy as being “svelte”, but those strands of sweetness certainly could carry the flavor of that original meaning.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 09, 2012 @ 06:42:50

      I’m glad this hit the (human and feline) spot. Your comment the other day about svelte being the right word to describe a bluebell bud prompted me to make the word the subject of a post over here. If you’re in an enterprising mood, you could start a business called the Svelte Taffy Company. Better hurry while the domain is still available.


  2. Just A Smidgen
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 08:38:51

    I was wondering why it would be Italian in origin, but realized that their pasta would have been stretched out and quite svelte looking, unlike my self after indulging in much too much of it;)


    Jun 11, 2012 @ 15:41:35

    Here’s how one of my Spanish profs explained the /nst/ sequence (he used the example “constitución,” but the explanation works for “construcción” too). Not all the consonants are clustered; the syllables are divided this way: cons-titución.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 11, 2012 @ 15:59:32

      You bring up a good point about the syllable boundary that splits the cluster. I considered that, and it certainly reduces the number of consonants to be considered on each side of the line. If I construe things correctly, then, Spanish rejects word-final -ns but allows syllable-final -ns.


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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: