English has three unrelated shingles. The most common is the plural of the shingle that infoplease defines as ‘a thin piece of wood, slate, metal, asbestos, or the like, usually oblong, laid in overlapping rows to cover the roofs and walls of buildings.’ Another is the plural of the shingle that means, in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary: ‘Beach gravel consisting of large smooth pebbles unmixed with finer material.’

The third shingles may look like a plural but English uses it as a singular to name ‘A kind of herpes (Herpes zoster) which spreads half way around the body like a girdle, and is usually attended with violent neuralgic pain.’ This shingles traces back, with influence from Old French, to Medieval Latin cingulus, a translation of the Greek zoster that meant ‘girdle,’ because the inflammation typically “girdles” the mid-section of an afflicted person’s body. In classical Latin the word had been cingulum, a neuter diminutive made from the root of the verb cingere whose meanings included ‘to go round in a circle, to surround, encompass, gird, wreathe, crown.’

Spanish speakers may recognize Latin cingere as the forerunner of the verb ceñir, whose principal definition in the DRAE is ‘Rodear, ajustar o apretar la cintura, el cuerpo, el vestido u otra cosa.’ English translations of ceñir include ‘to encircle, gird, girdle, fasten around one’s waist.’ Foreign students of Spanish may not know the verb ceñir, but they probably are familiar with the related noun cintura that means ‘waist.’ The augmentative cinturón is ‘a belt,’ and the simpler cinto is likewise ‘a belt’ or ‘a girdle.’

Most English speakers will be surprised that their language has a close cognate of Spanish cintura; likewise based on Latin cinctura, it’s cincture, which can mean either ‘an act of encircling’ or ‘a belt, sash, or similar object that goes around something.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Jun 27, 2013 @ 07:31:02

    I always admire these intellectual posts! Whenever someone says cintura now, I will smile and think of shingles! Thanks! Z


  2. shoreacres
    Jun 29, 2013 @ 07:55:53

    I didn’t know the second meaning, about beach gravel. Now that I think of it, I’ve never seen a Gulf Coast beach with those stretches of “smooth, large pebbles” that I’ve admired on the West Coast. The relationship between geography and vocabulary is interesting.

    When I was up in the Hill Country last weekend, I paid more than usual attention to roofing shingles. Here and there, the shingles were marked with strange white circles. The explanation? A severe hail storm that came through a couple of weeks ago. Everyone still was talking about those shingles.

    As for shingles-the-disease, my mother had a whopping case that lingered for over a year. Here’s your free-of-charge public health notice for anyone who reads this: a vaccine is available. If you haven’t gotten it, please do. You don’t want the disease. It’s a bad one.

    And now I’m thinking that the colloquial phrase “cinch up” surely is related. I hear it fairly often, as in, “Cinch up that rope”. When I was younger and was around dressmakers, I’d hear statements like “Cinch in that waist a little more”.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 29, 2013 @ 08:11:01

      Matthew Arnold used the second shingles in the next-to-last stanza of his poem “Dover Beach” (which coincidentally includes the word girdle):

      The Sea of Faith
      Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
      Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
      But now I only hear
      Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
      Retreating, to the breath
      Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
      And naked shingles of the world.

      With regard to the first kind of shingle, my part of Austin attracts hail, and twice in recent years we’ve been through the white-circles-on-the-roof thing.

      Thanks for your alert about a vaccine for the disease type of shingles.

      As has happened several times, you’ve anticipated me with your mention of cinch, which I’ll be treating in an upcoming post.


  3. paulinelm
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 05:27:09

    There is also the shingle hairstyle, a short bob with a razor-cut back. It was popular in the 1920s.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 04, 2013 @ 06:33:22

      Thanks for that addition. I had to go back to the dictionary to confirm that the name of the hairstyle was an extended use of the first type of shingle. I imagine that people saw a resemblance between the razor-cut back and the corner of a roof.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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