On the origin of species

Three times in my nature blog this week I played off the familiar English-language saying that “variety is the spice of life” by writing that “variety is the species of life.” It’s more than just wordplay, though, because spice and species are doublets, two words in a given language that trace back etymologically to the same ancestor. Usually both members of the pair have changed from the common ancestor, but in this case one of the two, species, happens to be the original form. Created from the same root as the Latin verb specere ‘to look at,’ the Latin noun speciēs had as its basic meaning ‘a seeing, sight, look, view.’ According to A Latin Dictionary, derived meanings included ‘the outward appearance, outside, exterior; shape, form, figure; a seeming, semblance, pretense, cloak, color, pretext; a likeness, image.’ Eventually came the sense, still in Roman times, of ‘the particular thing among many to which the looks are turned; hence, a particular sort, kind, or quality, a species.’

When early biologists needed a word for ‘a group of organisms that have a common appearance,’ they adopted Latin speciēs. (Although many people think they know what a species is, the term is actually difficult if not impossible to define in a way that works for everything that botanists and zoologists have called a species.) Along a somewhat different semantic line, speciēs acquired in Late Latin the meaning ‘goods or wares that are classed together.’ That sense persisted in the Old French word that developed from speciēs, espice, which is the source of modern English spice. To see the historical semantic link, we can conjure up an image of exotic spice merchants with their herbs all neatly arrayed and classified by type, i.e. species, and purpose.

Note that the English word species has only one species of form, species, for both singular and plural, in contrast to spice, which behaves like a normal English noun and adds an s to make the two-syllable plural spices. So spice has more variety in its life as a noun than does species, even if species designates many more types of plants than those relatively few that people use as spices.

Spanish, too, has ended up with doublets from Latin speciēs. Corresponding to French-derived English spice Spanish has especia. The much more nuanced Spanish especie can mean ‘species, kind, sort; nature; mental image; event, incident; pretext, show; proposition; piece of news.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 07, 2013 @ 09:39:41

    I caught your response to Georgette this morning, and was puzzled by it. I’d noticed your repetition of the phrase “variety is the species of life” and knew there had to be a reason, but I couldn’t figure it out. Nice of you to provide the explanation so quickly!

    I’d never thought about “species” being both singular and plural. And now I have a way to remember the nature of a doublet. The common ancestor is like the seam that holds together the front and back portions of the garment called a doublet.

    Having absorbed all this, I have to ask – would it be fair to call the relationship between “species” and “spice” a “special” one?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 07, 2013 @ 10:52:23

      Yes, I figured I owed people an explanation of that strange version of the saying. Species is one of those Latin words, like series, whose plural is the same as its singular. I sometimes used to have math students who assumed series is a regular plural and therefore created the new singular serie. There’s a strong instinct to regularize.

      Any mnemonic is a good mnemonic—if it works for you. Funny that doublet should have those double meanings, one in etymology and another in Renaissance clothing.

      As for special, I’d already thought about a follow-up post about that but I haven’t written it yet. There’s so much to do, it’s hard to specify what I should tackle first.


  2. Trackback: A warm nod to arithmetic « Portraits of Wildflowers
  3. kathryningrid
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 01:20:11

    That’s some mighty spicy talk there. But I don’t find your facts specious, and your thinking is certainly spacious. You expand *my* mind, anyway!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 11, 2013 @ 02:57:05

      That’s a spectacular comment. I expect you and I are of the same species, specifically conspicuous players with words who sometimes make spectacles of ourselves—even if not for ourselves.


  4. Trackback: A special post « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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