In my other blog last week I posted a photograph of something we rarely see in central Texas, a row of icicles. That set me to thinking about the word icicle, which seems to be a compound of ice and the Latin-derived diminutive ending -icle that concludes words like cubicle, particle, ventricle, and vesicle. The truth is more interesting, however, because although the first part of icicle really is ice, the rest of the word developed from Anglo-Saxon gicel, which already meant ‘icicle’ in its own right, so that etymologically icicle redundantly means ‘ice icicle.’ My guess is that English speakers gradually lost sight of what gicel meant as an independent wordespecially in the phonetically reduced form that it developed to, in which the g came to be pronounced as a y—and therefore felt the need to prefix ice to it to make the meaning clearer.

And the connection to Spanish? There’s none to carámbano, the Spanish word for ‘icicle,’ but I was surprised some years ago when browsing the DRAE to discover that Spanish has borrowed iceberg from English. The definition in that dictionary is ‘Gran masa de hielo flotante, desgajada del polo, que sobresale en parte de la superficie del mar.’ There’s even an entry for la punta del iceberg, which Spanish uses in the same metaphorical way that English uses the tip of the iceberg. Of course iceberg is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to words that Spanish has borrowed from English in recent years.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 09:31:54

    that made me think of ‘hot water heater!’  – thanks for the history of the word icicle!  i loved the photo of the ice in your other post;  brrrrrrrrrrrr,  seeing it through your view is fine with me!   i’ll take the 70-degree rain any day!




    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 11:22:36

      Like you, Lisa, I’m definitely a lover of warmth. Most of the time Texas provides it, and in great abundance for better than half the year. As a nature photographer, though, I force myself to put up with the cold for a little while to get pictures of the rare ice and snow that we get in central Texas. The session that brought the picture of icicles (and the picture of the freezing creek in today’s post) lasted a little over two hours, and for half an hour afterwards the sole of my left foot felt like there was a lump inside the skin. In any case, I’m happy to have you experience this vicariously.


  2. kathryningrid
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 21:07:48

    Any language worth its salt does borrow from and loan to others!


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 24, 2014 @ 15:23:01

    I’m not sure any icicles developed in the Houston area the last twenty-four hours, but there’s been ice a-plenty.

    I love that “icicle” is a redundancy, and it made me curious about other redundancies. I found this article about place names , and discovered that one of my favorite places for metaphorical use – La Brea – actually ends up being “the The Tar Tar Pits”.

    Something else caught my attention. When you pointed out the definition of iceberg – Gran masa de hielo flotante… I was trying to figure it out on my own, and masa stopped me. I’d only come across it as a part of masa harina and couldn’t figure out what tortillas and icebergs had in common. Now I know. It’s not just English that uses one word in several ways.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 24, 2014 @ 17:47:06

      I saw on the news that for once your coastal part of Texas got more ice than we did in the center of the state. I hope you found some scenes more view-worthy than those here. We had small pellets of ice that didn’t coat any plants or trees at all but instead made a thin sheet of white on the ground.

      That was a good article about redundant place names you linked to. As it pointed out, redundancies are common when people from one language borrow a term from another that they don’t understand. A classic example in English is “the hoi polloi,” where hoi already means ‘the’ in Greek.

      The same kind of thing can happen within a language when acronyms are involved. Almost everyone speaks of “a PIN number,” even though PIN stands for Personal Identification Number.

      The English word mass (not the religious one) comes from Latin massa, which meant ‘kneaded dough,’ which is the sense you know from masa harina.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

%d bloggers like this: