Students of Spanish-language literature know Sarmiento as the family name of Argentina’s seventh president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was also an intellectual and writer. Just as English has family names like Wood, Snow, Lake, and Forest, which are capitalized versions of common nouns, Sarmiento is a capitalized version of the sarmiento that means ‘a vine shoot; the stalk on which grapes grow.’ The noun comes, with little change in form, from Latin sarmentum, which meant ‘a twig, slender branch,’ and in the plural ‘brushwood.’ The Latin noun had come from the stem of sarpere, a verb whose meanings were, with reference to shrubs and branches, ‘to cut off, trim, prune, clean.’

If we go back farther, we find that Latin sarpere evolved from the Indo-European root *serp-, which designated the ‘sickle’ or ‘hook’ that a person would presumably use to prune shrubbery. When that Indo-European root passed on into Greek, where an initial s- typically became h-, it gave rise to Greek harpe ‘sickle.’ The Romans borrowed that as harpa, which may have evolved to Old French harpe ‘a sickle, claw, clamp.’ I say “may have evolved” because it’s possible that the Old French noun was based on a Germanic verb harpan that meant ‘to seize.’ Even if harpe did come from Latin, its sense was probably influenced by that of the similar-sounding Germanic root.

From Old French harpe came Anglo-Norman harpon, which originally meant ‘the clasp of a piece of jewelry.’ Only in the 1500s did harpon come to designate ‘a type of arrow used to catch whales and large fish.’ That definition identifies harpon as the forerunner of English harpoon. And there, with a tenuous link in the middle, we have a connection between English harpoon and Spanish sarmiento.

Corresponding to the noun sarmiento, Spanish has the adjective sarmentoso, which with respect to plants means ‘twining, climbing.’ When describing hands, sarmentoso has the extended [pun] senses ‘long and slender,’ while fingers that are characterized as sarmentosos are ‘gnarled.’ Botanical English uses sarmentose (or sarmentous, or even sarmentaceous) to mean ‘having stems that act as runners.’ Corresponding in form to Spanish sarmiento, botanical English sarment and the borrowed Latin sarmentum mean ‘a slender running stem, a runner.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 21:23:14

    Interestingly, the line attached to a traditional Thule/Inuit harpoon (and I suppose to more modern versions as well) could be seen as having the visual qualities of “a slender running stem, a runner”.

    And then there’s that other “harpoon” – the one that was pulled out of a dirty red bandana and famously was “playin’ low while Bobby sang the blues…”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 17, 2012 @ 22:00:25

      That’s a good visual connection.

      As for harpoon, I’d always taken it to mean ‘harmonica,’ because another name for the instrument is a mouth harp. Surprisingly, though, as I looked through dictionaries, I couldn’t find one that gave that meaning of harpoon. Next I turned to my printed dictionaries of slang, and in one of those by Paul Dickson from the 1990s I found that harpoon has been a slang term for ‘hypodermic needle.’ That would give quite a different meaning to the line in the Kris Kristofferson song. I’ve searched online and found that interpretation given most of the way down in the article at


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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