Some time back I ran across the Spanish word empollón, which was new to me. The DRAE marks it as despectivo ‘derogatory’ and defines it this way: ‘Dicho de un estudiante: Que prepara mucho sus lecciones, y se distingue más por la aplicación que por el talento.’ (Let me translate that loosely: ‘Said of a student who slaves away on assignments and gets good grades more through brute force than through ability.’)
The adjective/noun empollón is derived from the verb empollar, which means literally ‘to incubate, to hatch,’ but the mental image of a bird putting in arduous days sitting on an egg to get it to hatch has led to extended meanings like ‘toil, slave away, work one’s fingers to the bone, plug away, slog,’ and, with reference to students, ‘cram.’
It’s not hard to see that empollar contains the elements en ‘in’ and pollo, which we’re used to translating into English as ‘chicken’ but which earlier meant more generally—and still can mean—’chick, the young of a bird.’ (Notice, similarly, how the English word chicken is based on chick.) A related English word that came into the language from Old French is pullet, which is etymologically equivalent to the Spanish diminutive pollito, and which designates ‘a young chicken, especially one less than a year old.’ Another relative that English borrowed is poultry, which likewise traces back to an Old French cognate of Spanish pollo.
© 2014 Steven Schwartzman