When researching vilano a few months ago I was led to milano, which put me right above the entry in one of my reference books for a Spanish word that appeared there in three forms: mildeu, mildiu, mildiú. The English equivalent that the dictionary gave, as if one were necessary, was mildew. Here, clearly, was another example of a word that Spanish borrowed from English.

What exactly is mildew? The 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary gave this definition: ‘A growth of minute powdery or webby fungi, whitish or of different colors, found on various diseased or decaying substances.’ The Century Dictionary had this as its second definition: ‘A state of decay produced in living and dead vegetable matter, and in some manufactured products of vegetable matter, such as cloth and paper, by the ravages of very minute parasitical fungi.’ The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained that the dew in mildew is due to “the sudden, dew-like manner” of the occurrence of these fungi.

Modern English mildew developed from Old English mildeaw, which meant ‘nectar’ and ‘honeydew,’ and in that second meaning we see a connection to Spanish: Old English mil was a cognate of Latin mel, which like its Spanish descendant miel meant ‘honey.’ Honey is sweet, and, as Noah Webster noted in his dictionary of 1828, mildew is ‘a thick, clammy, sweet juice, found on the leaves of plants, which is said to injure the plants by corroding them, or otherwise preventing them from coming to perfection.’ It may not be sweet for affected plants or their growers, but that sweetness is the connection between Spanish miel and the first part of English mildew.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 21, 2012 @ 16:23:33

    “Milano” puts me right in the midst of the Pepperidge Farm section of the cookie aisle. 😉

    The garden dudes on Houston radio make a distinction between honeydew and the mildew they call “black sooty mold”. According to them, the honeydew is a clear, sweet secretion produced by aphids. Once that builds up on the plants, the mildew/mold forms.

    In the end, it’s a distinction without much of a difference, but it’s interesting to see how the meanings might have been conflated by people who didn’t notice that the aphids were producing the sweet, sticky substance that nurtured the mold.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 21, 2012 @ 17:00:52

      Your first sentence is a sweet bit of parodying. I’ve seen “black sooty mold” that was the result of water leaking into baseboard from an air conditioner or water heater, with no aphids required.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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