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


17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Mar 12, 2014 @ 17:15:57

    Yep…seen that.

    ‘students to write something that doesn’t make sense and that they can’t explain if you ask them about it’


  2. shoreacres
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 07:48:57

    Is it possible I’ve finally found the answer to my life-long question about why Brussels sprouts are called by that name? Certainly the veggie looks like a “sprout” — a very young cabbage.

    I’ve not heard the word used this way in decades, but I can remember children being referred to as sprouts, especially those of grade-school age.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 14, 2014 @ 11:53:11

      Yes, I feel sure you’ve found the answer to your question about Brussels sprouts. Now if I could only get grocery stores to stop calling these veggies “Brussel sprouts” I’d be entitled to a Pulitzer Prize, or at least a free trip to New Orlean.

      The second definition for the noun sprout in the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary is: ‘Something resembling or suggestive of a sprout, as in rapid growth: ‘a tall blond sprout of a boy’ (Anne Tyler).”


  3. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 09:46:25

    Here it’s very common. I actually laughed when I saw this on the RSS feed. It’s the only name used here for it and it’s usually boiled or eaten fresh in green salads.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 09:57:18

      Repollo is the name I learned in Honduras, but I’m aware that another Spanish name for it is col, which is related to the cole in cole slaw, which means literally ‘cabbage salad.’


  4. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 10:16:30

    Yes, it is also called ‘col’ because it’s the same family as ‘coliflor’. But I just googled repollo and the alternate name is ‘col repollo’ (castellano), col (catalán), so it’s probably used in Spain, or who knows if in South America somewhere else. Both Chile and Argentina probably don’t use ‘repollo’ because they were big countries colonized by Spain. You may have gotten this root from “repolo (gallego)” which is from Galician origin? “The lexicon of the [Galician] language is predominantly of Latin extraction, although it also contains an important number of words of Germanic and Celtic origin, among other substrates and adstrates, having also received, mainly through Spanish and Portuguese, a sizeable number of nouns from the Arabs who in the Middle Ages governed southern Iberia.” Wiki


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 10:44:16

      Actually col is of Latin origin too: it developed from caulis, which meant ‘stem, stalk.’ Because of that Roman origin, you find offshoots (intentional pun) of the word in various Romance languages, e.g French chou, Portuguese couve, Italian cavolo, and the Catalan col that you mentioned. As for the other word, its descendants from Latin may be restricted to the Iberian Peninsula; in addition to Spanish repollo and the Galician repolo that you cited, Portuguese has repolho.


  5. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 10:47:55

    And ‘polo’ doesn’t necessarily come from ‘pollo’. Why did it convert to ‘pollo’, again, don’t ask me; whether the Galicians meant “pole” or used it from “poultry”. And this is the meaning of ‘polo’:


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 10:54:32

      Notice in the etymology given in the DRAE that Spanish polo ultimately comes from Greek and has nothing to do with Spanish pollo or any of its poultry-related Romance-language relatives. Words can be similar or even identical and yet come from different and unrelated sources.


  6. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 11:03:23

    So it leaves you ‘polus’, which means small:


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 11:22:30

      In spite of what your online source claims, there was no Latin adjective polus that meant ‘small.’ That appears to be a typo for paucus, which did have the meanings that are given there, and which evolved to Spanish poco.

      The only polus in Latin was the noun borrowed from Greek; that polus is the source of Spanish polo and the matching pole in English.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 19, 2014 @ 04:37:53

      I’m writing this comment to add the Latin adjective that Maria later found and e-mailed me about, paulus (also spelled paullus), which meant ‘small’ and which was based on the same root as paucus, the ancestor of Spanish poco; native English few is a relative. The Roman name Paulus had begun as a nickname, in the same sort of way that English can refer to someone as Shorty.


  7. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 11:54:52

    There were also Greek settlers in Galicia. Now look at the image of the Cabbage flowers:
    They’re known to be “few”, or insignificant. This makes more sense to me, but given that even when the Celtics were there first, how do we know Galicia’s ‘polo’ is referring to the Celtic, or to the Greek origin of the word?


  8. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 13:03:35

    Actually, the Greek and the Phoenicians came before the Celts. “Greek and the Phoenician colonizations of peninsula were parallel. The Greeks were also attracted to the Iberian Peninsula for trading purposes. They established several cities there including Emporion and Rhodes. Most of the words of Greek origin found in modern day Spanish do not come from this period of colonization; rather, they were introduced into the language later by the Romans.”-
    The way the Galicians call it “repolo” threw me into all this inquiry.


  9. Tropical Flowering Zone/Maria
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 19:24:49

    Yes Steve, and thanks for such great blog!


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