The fact that the last post dealt with students and pollo reminds me of an old joke I learned when I first took Portuguese in 1965, about the English-speaking student who supposedly saw the word repollo and translated it as ‘re-chicken.’ Obviously that “translation” makes no sense*, but the strange truth is that repollo ‘cabbage’ is related to pollo ‘chicken.’ Both go back to Latin pullus, which meant ‘a young animal.’ Even in Roman times the notion of ‘a young organism’ allowed pullus to take on the extended sense ‘a sprout,’ and the later prefixing of re- in the creation of Old Spanish repollo further reinforced the idea of a very young plant. The particular plant that people applied the word to was one that the Romans had been quite fond of, namely cabbage.
Moving back into the animal kingdom, we note that Latin pullus was the cognate of native Old English fola, which has become the modern foal that means ‘a young horse or similar animal.’ As a result, Spanish pollo and English foal are etymologically, even if not biologically, the same animal.
* You might ask how someone could offer a translation that doesn’t make sense, but I assure you from years of teaching that it’s not unusual on a test or in a paper for students to write something that doesn’t make sense and that they can’t explain if you ask them about it.
© 2014 Steven Schwartzman