In the last post we saw that Spanish has borrowed the English noun trigger as a technical term in computer science, where it refers to a function in a computer program that gets triggered when a certain condition has been met. In the literal sense of ‘a small lever that a person pulls to set off a gun,’ trigger has not passed into Spanish, which uses disparador or gatillo for that device.
Gatillo, of course, is a diminutive of gato ‘cat,’ one of those words that many languages have borrowed. Here’s what John Ayto wrote in Word Origins: “The word cat seems to have appeared on the European scene, in the form of Latin catta or cattus, around 1000 AD…. No one is completely sure where it came from (although given the domestic cat’s origins in Egypt, it is likely to have been an Egyptian word), but it soon spread north and west through Europe.” The modern English form comes from Anglo-Norman, which preserved the /k/ of the Medieval Latin—as opposed to standard French, which now has chat. In contrast to both of those, Spanish has added voicing to the initial consonant, the result being gato. Joan Corominas reports the earliest known occurrence of gato as being from the year 967.
But back to gatillo, and to a question that had been on my mind for a long time: why did Spanish conceive of the trigger of a gun as ‘a little cat’? In looking at the definitions of the word in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, I think I can trace the semantic progression:
Parte superior del pescuezo de algunos cuadrúpedos, que se extiende desde cerca de la cruz hasta cerca de la nuca.
The upper part of the neck in certain quadrupeds, which extends from near the withers to near the nape.
Pedazo de carne que se tuerce en la parte superior del pescuezo de algunos cuadrúpedos, cayendo hacia uno de los lados de él.
Piece of folded flesh on the upper part of the shoulder of certain quadrupeds, falling onto one side or the other of it.
Antiguamente, percutor (Pieza que golpea en cualquier máquina, y especialmente el martillo o la aguja con que se hace detonar el cebo del cartucho en las armas de fuego).
Formerly, percutor, which is defined in its own entry as a piece that strikes a machine, in particular the hammer or needle used to detonate the firing cap of a cartridge in a firearm.
So there you have it—I think—from the back of a cat’s neck, which gets petted, to the trigger of a gun, which gets squeezed.
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman