If the previous post dealt with carámbano ‘icicle,’ something that’s often white, today’s entry involves a sea creature known for squirting a black liquid into the water so a predator can’t see it well. In spite of the contrast between white and black, carámbano and calamar ‘squid’ are related words. We’ve already seen that carámbano goes back to Latin calamus, which meant literally ‘a reed,’ but the Romans also took to using the word to designate ‘a reed pen.’ From that noun came the adjective  calamārius ‘having to do with a reed pen.’ In Late Latin the neuter calamārium began to function as a noun meaning ‘a pen case.’ That became Italian calamaro, with a shift in meaning to ‘squid,’ presumably because of the animal’s black “ink.” Spanish has borrowed the Italian word as calamar, the ending of which, it is now clear, only coincidentally coincides with the mar that means ‘sea,’ the environment in which a squid lives. The plural of calamar is calamares in Spanish, but in Italian it’s calamari, and that’s the form in which English has borrowed the word, using it primarily for ‘squid as food’ as opposed to ‘squid as an animal in its natural habitat.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 13:20:18

    Do you know if squid ink was ever used for writing? Or, was there another common source of black ink?


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 29, 2014 @ 21:04:39

    When I read the title, I supplied the missing letter in the process of reading, and was already at “calamari” before I started reading the post.

    I did remember that the Italian for sea is mare, not mar. That’s not specifically relevant here, but I thought it was interesting that I knew the difference.

    I have another unrelated question. I’m working on a post about armadillos, and I suddenly wondered if, for example, padilla and armadillo are examples of masculine and feminine words (or endings).

    Where padilla came from, I have no clue.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 29, 2014 @ 21:33:55

      You’re right that mare is the Italian word for ‘sea,’ but in poetry and opera lyrics it can be shortened to mar. For example, there’s a famous aria called “Cielo e mar” (“Sky and Sea”). In Spanish, the word is always mar, but that word has the peculiarity that in older texts and even more recently in poetry it’s feminine, as opposed to its normal masculine gender. (Think about the Texan named Lamar.) Those are the two genders that Spanish has (Latin had three). Words ending in -o, like armadillo, are almost always masculine, and words ending in -a, like padilla, are usually feminine. Padilla is an obsolete word that meant ‘a small frying pan.’ It comes from Latin patella, which English uses as an anatomical term. Padilla survives in Spanish as a family name, as in the baseball player Jorge Padilla.


  3. nliakos
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 22:25:50

    In modern Greek, kalamari means both ‘squid’ and ‘pen.’ In the traditional New Year’s ‘kalanda’ (carol), there is a line which goes ‘To kalamari egrafe, i moira tou tin elege…’, which means, ‘The pen wrote and told his fate.’ The first time I heard it, I thought it meant ‘The squid wrote…’ My Greek husband is still laughing about that one! (To hear the carol, go to; it’s the 5th verse (minute 1:46).


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 31, 2014 @ 07:10:56

      Thanks for adding all that information about Greek. I didn’t mention it in the post, but Latin had taken calamus from Greek kalamos in the first place. It’s interesting that in modern Greek kalamari has both the ‘squid’ and ‘pen’ meanings, just as happened with Late Latin and Italian, and it’s funny how you originally interpreted the song line.


  4. kathryningrid
    Feb 03, 2014 @ 17:19:18

    A gripping story!! 😉


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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