The last post mentioned that there’s no etymological connection between English icicle and the Spanish word for that object, so it seems appropriate now to look at the origin of carámbano. That’s the modern version of carámbalo, from an earlier caramblo that had developed from Vulgar Latin *calamulus. That was a diminutive of Latin calamus ‘a reed, a cane,’ and people who have lived long enough in cold climates can confirm that some icicles do indeed take the shape of a reed or soda straw (as do some stalactites). Latin, by the way, had acquired calamus from the synonymous Greek kalamos.

Spanish has borrowed Latin calamus as cálamo, with meanings that include ‘stalk, stem, shaft’ and in particular ‘the hollow, plumeless part of the shaft of a feather.’ English conveys that last sense with the original Latin calamus. Calamus is also a botanical genus name, and cálamo aromático/calamus is a specific herb also known in English as sweet flag.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. vocabat
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 16:07:50

    You’ve taught me a new word! If I get even one chance to use it before I die, I’ll be happy. It reminds me of the word for starfruit: carambola.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 23, 2014 @ 17:13:26

      I know carambola from the starfruit that’s common in the Philippines, but decades before, when I lived for two years in the tropical country of Honduras, I never ran across the word carámbano, so it’s pretty new to me, too. “Wear” it well.


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 24, 2014 @ 15:39:01

    And here comes the folk etymologist – although in this case I’m not entirely alone, as the OED mentions that early etymologists also associated “calamity” with calamus, or straw.

    What’s even neater is this set of ornaments that combines feathers – including their plumeless shafts – with glass encasements resembling icicles.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 24, 2014 @ 18:02:00

      I wonder why people would have associated a calamity with a straw. The Latin words may sound similar, but what semantics would support a connection?

      Your ornaments are a neat find, and so appropriate for this post.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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