Food for thought

The Latin word cibus meant ‘food,’ and that’s why the abbreviation cib. in a medicinal prescription means ‘food.’ For the Romans, cibus also meant ‘fodder,’ which is to say ‘food for animals,’ and that sense has continued in the word’s Spanish descendant, cebo. The Spanish noun also means ‘bait for fishing’ and by extension ‘a lure’; those meanings apply not only to fishing, where they’re literal, but also figuratively to other things. Span¡shD!ct even gives the gloss ‘That which excites or foments a passion.’ Bringing that passion to weaponry, Spanish extended the sense of cebo to the ‘charge’ or ‘primer’ used in guns.

From cebo came the verb cebar, whose meanings include ‘to feed or fatten up (an animal); to bait (a hook); to stoke (a fire); to prime (a gun); to excite (a passion).’ The feminine past participle, cebada, has become a noun that designates ‘barley,’ which presumably was once fed to animals (and may still be).

Various reference books have traced American Spanish ceviche, which is ‘raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice with olive oil and spices and served as an appetizer,’ back to Peninsular Spanish cebiche, and farther back to cebo. The American Heritage Dictionary did so through its 4th edition, but the 5th edition (which is the current one) claims that Spanish cebiche came from an Arabic word, not from cebo.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Frederick Jackson
    Apr 23, 2014 @ 12:57:23

    And the Spanish for manger, pesebre, related also?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 23, 2014 @ 13:41:27

      Spelling can be a help in tracing etymology, and even though New World Spanish pronounces c before e or i like an s (as does English, thanks to French), the fact that cebo and pesebre are spelled with different consonants is an indication that the words come from different sources. Spanish pesebre developed from Latin praesepe, whose meanings included ‘manger, stable, enclosure.’


  2. kathryningrid
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 23:35:14

    By golly, there might have to be some ceviche on the menu sooner rather than later. Smart guy.


  3. shoreacres
    May 01, 2014 @ 22:09:04

    Is it possible that cebada and the rustic ciabatta bread I enjoy so much are related?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 02, 2014 @ 06:31:17

      Here thou shalt find the answer to thy query (and shallt perchance, at least in thy imagination, find that bread of the Italians less savory):


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 02, 2014 @ 06:33:41

      By the way, I could have just answered your question, but I wanted to include a link to the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary because it has the most authoritative etymologies.


      • shoreacres
        May 02, 2014 @ 08:15:23

        Hmmm… It is true that poorly made ciabatta can be as tough as the proverbial shoe leather. Interesting. Good to know your judgment about the AH Dictionary, too. I played with it a bit this morning, and have a tab for easy access now.

        By the way, I was leaving a comment on another blog this morning, and referenced my current post. I got as far as “rennov…” before I stopped, looked, smiled, backed up, and corrected myself.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          May 02, 2014 @ 09:11:51

          The AHD is the only dictionary I’m aware of that regularly traces words back to Indo-European roots. The section of the dictionary listing all those roots and the English words coming from them isn’t included in what’s offered free online; to get access to that appendix (and the one for Semitic roots) you have to buy a print version or e-version.

          Linguist Calvert Watkins, who died only a year ago and about whom you can read more at

          originally created the dictionary of Indo-European roots. I don’t know if he’d been renovating it through the various editions of the AHD, or if others were in charge of the updates.


          • Frederick Jackson
            May 02, 2014 @ 11:22:29

            Nut. I had an AHD, a gift from my brother, but alas,it was lost in storage along with many other belongings. He pointed out right away that the AHD had an Indo-European dictionary as an appendix.


            • Steve Schwartzman
              May 02, 2014 @ 13:41:25

              Then it might be time, especially if the lost copy was an edition before the current 5th one, to get a new copy. As an iOs or Android app it sells for $25, much less than the printed version.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          May 02, 2014 @ 09:24:01

          It suddenly dawned on me that you could have been influenced all this time by the double n of innovation.


          • shoreacres
            May 02, 2014 @ 11:50:26

            Could be. But there’s also this. If it’s re-novation, why isn’t it co-notation? 😉


            • Steve Schwartzman
              May 02, 2014 @ 13:59:47

              It’s because the Medieval Latin verb connotare was constructed with the prefix con-, the same prefix that appears in Latin-derived words like construct, contact, and condemn. Latin sometimes shortened the prefix to co-, especially before a vowel, which accounts for compounds like cooperate, coagulate, and coincidence. One complication is that we’ve adopted co- as a living English prefix to make terms like co-signer, co-parent,co-pilot, co-author, and even co-blogger.


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