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 word—especially 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