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