One of the curiosities in the development of the Romance languages was the general loss of a word that was very common in Latin, magnus, whose many senses included ‘big, great, large, extensive, vast, tall, mighty.’ It survives, disguised, in Spanish tamaño, which evolved from Latin tam magnus ‘so great,’ although that adjective phrase became a noun along the way and tamaño ended up meaning ‘size.’ In addition, by borrowing directly from Latin, rather than via evolution, Spanish has magnitud, just as English has magnitude.

As magnus faded from the developing Romance languages, it was generally replaced with a descendant of Latin grandis, which had meant ‘large, great, full, abundant, grown up, old.’ Spanish and Portuguese and Italian have grande, French has grand, and Catalan has gran.

The Latin adjective largus, another synonym of magnus, also survived, but often with semantic change. In Spanish, largo came to mean ‘long.’ One of the original Latin senses persists in English large, borrowed from Old French, even though in modern French the word’s meaning shifted to ‘wide.’ Similarly, Italian largo covers the senses ‘wide, broad, extensive.’ Italian also put the word to work in music, where it designates ‘a very slow passage.’ Perhaps that semantic transfer originated from the fact that when a river widens it usually slows down because the water is spread over a larger area. Whatever the origin of the semantic broadening, Spanish has added the Italian musical sense. So has English, and largo is now a doublet of large.

Corresponding to the adjective largo Spanish has the abstract noun largueza ‘length.’ English has largeness, which means ‘size,’ and usually ‘great size.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 23, 2014 @ 22:15:56

    I stayed once on Gran Canaria, and wondered at the time why its name was spelled so strangely. Perhaps I’ve found the explanation. Is the name Catalan?

    Another place whose name I never really considered is Key Largo. I just checked a map and, in fact, the key is long. I never see the word “largo” without thinking of Key Largo – both the film and the song.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 23, 2014 @ 22:40:22

      I know that song but I didn’t know that its title is Key Largo, which I’m glad to find, thanks to your research, is indeed a long key.

      The first word in Gran Canaria is Spanish. There are a couple of words in that language that usually take a shorter form in front of another noun. In addition to grande > gran, there’s santo > san, as in San José, San Miguel, and San Francisco. The shorter form of santo, however, is not used in front of a word beginning with t or d, so we have Santo Tomás and Santo Domingo.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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