With the advent on November 1 of Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, people in Mexico and neighboring American states like Texas have been seeing celebratory, stylized images of calaveras, or ‘skulls.’ The Spanish word developed from a presumed *calvera, which would have been the natural development of Latin calvaria ‘human skull.’ English speakers recognize that as the source (via French calvaire) of Calvary, the name given to the hill outside ancient Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

Joan Corominas notes that Spanish speakers partially confused the old *calvera with cadáver, which accounts for the extra a in the modern form calavera. And speaking of mixups, I can attest that some Catholic children in the New York of the 1950s confused Calvary with the cavalry that they were used to seeing on the movie screens and televisions of the era.

Latin calvaria, which was a translation of the original Aramaic gulgulta ‘skull,’ came from calvus ‘bald,’ based on the notion that a human skull has lost all its hair (and skin and muscle) and is effectively bald. We recognize calvus as the source of the synonymous Spanish calvo.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Nov 01, 2012 @ 22:48:02

    And a nod to Mark Twain is surely in order, along with his celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County. As it turns out, Calaveras County was aptly named. From the wiki:

    “The county takes its name from the Calaveras River; it was said to have been named by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga when he found many skulls of Native Americans along the banks of the stream. He believed they had either died of famine or been killed in tribal conflicts over hunting and fishing grounds. In fact, the human remains were of the native Miwuk people killed by Spanish soldiers after they banded together to rise against Spanish missionaries.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 02, 2012 @ 06:30:38

      It’s a shame that the name of the Calaveras River has such a sad origin.

      On a different note, I’ll add that calavera, respelled with an initial k, is yet another of the many Spanish words that have made their way into the various languages of the Philippines.


  2. Cecilia
    Mar 28, 2014 @ 18:26:29

    Hi, just wanted to mention, I liked this article. It was funny.
    Keep on posting!


  3. Trackback: Conversational Calaveras 1: La Famosa Catrina | DAILY DOSE OF ART

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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