In this column I’ve often given definitions from the 1828 dictionary compiled by Noah Webster, but today I’ll quote from an older bearer of that family name, John Webster:

Vain the ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.

My ambition in this post is to trace the origin of ambición/ambition and a few related words. The starting point is the Indo-European root *i-, which meant ‘to go’ and which gave rise to Latin ire and its synonymous Spanish descendant ir.

Latin attached each of several prefixes to ire, including amb- ‘around.’ The result was ambire, which meant ‘to go around,’ particularly in order to solicit votes. Some things never change, do they? Now you know why politicians are often described as ambitious (or much worse). From ambire came the Latin noun ambitio, with stem ambition-, which meant ‘a going around’ and which is the source of ambición/ambition and its corresponding adjective ambicioso/ambitious.

The present participle of the Latin verb ambire was ambiens, with stem ambient-, from which came ambiente/ambient. Spanish ambiente can function as an adjective that’s similar to English ambient, but as a noun ambiente means various things: ‘environment; air, atmosphere; medium; attitude.’ English has filled the corresponding noun slot with ambiance, which is a French relative of ambiente.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 05, 2012 @ 19:47:11

    I’m never ambivalent about ambling through your blogs – there always are new things to ponder.

    To wit: what John Webster might think about another fellow who had interest in catching the wind. (And no, I’m not saying it’s good music – especially now that I’ve listened to it again for the first time in perhaps 30 years! I think Donovan should have been a bit more ambitious!)


  2. las artes
    Jul 06, 2012 @ 02:33:05

    The phenomenon becomes especially interesting when it feeds back into the development of the word and thus becomes a part of a new etymology. Believing a word to have a certain origin, people begin to pronounce, spell, or otherwise use the word in a manner appropriate to that perceived origin, in a kind of misplaced pedantry . Thus a new standard form of the word appears which has been influenced by the misconception. This popular etymologizing has had a powerful influence on the forms which words take. Examples in English include ” crayfish ” or “crawfish”, from the French crevis; “sand-blind”, from the older samblind (i.e. semi-, half-blind); or “chaise lounge” for the original French chaise longue.


  3. dianeandjack
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 11:48:28

    Cool post! So many words arising from the same root, and all having pretty much the same meaning!


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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