In the book Where Mathematics Comes From, by Lakoff and Núñez, I came across this sentence:

All human beings, regardless of culture or education, can instantly tell at a glance whether there are one, two, or three objects before them. This ability is called subitizing, from the Latin word for “sudden.”

Spanish speakers are likely to recognize in subitizing the word súbito, which developed from Latin subitum, the past participle of subīre, the predecessor of Spanish subir. Now, the fact that subir means ‘to go up’ is often puzzling to English speakers who learn Spanish, and perhaps to Spanish speakers who think about it, because we’re used to associating sub with ‘under,’ as in submarino/submarine and subterráneo/subterranean. The explanation is that *upo, the Indo-European ancestor of Latin sub, actually meant ‘up from under’ as well as ‘under,’ As a result, Latin subīre meant not only ‘to come or go under,’ but also ‘to come or go up to’ and ‘to spring up.’ It’s that sense of springing up, which of course takes place quickly, that gave Latin subito, and therefore its Spanish descendant súbito, the sense of ‘sudden(ly).’

Alongside subitus Latin created the longer adjective subitāneus, which Spanish has borrowed as subitáneo, and which the DRAE defines (somewhat circularly, because a definition isn’t supposed to use another form of the word being defined) as ‘Que sucede súbitamente.’ Vulgar Latin turned subitāneus into the slightly shorter *subitānus; that evolved to Old French sodain, which Middle English borrowed, and which has become sudden in modern English.

Let me close with a little coincidence. While I was writing the first part of this post on April 25th, I walked into another room where the television was on and tuned to a news channel. As I kept walking, I glanced at the television screen and saw video of a crowd in Rome that had gathered early for the canonization two days later of Pope John Paul and Pope John XXIII. One of the people in the crowd was holding a sign saying “SANTO SUBITO.” Though you might be tempted to translates that as ‘sudden saint,’ in Italian subito has taken on the sense ‘immediately, right now.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tropical Flowering Zone
    Apr 29, 2014 @ 22:12:18

    In P.R. all we use is ‘súbito’ as with ‘all of the sudden’. Now I looked up “su” as a prefix alone without the ‘b’ which means “good”, “above”, or “beyond”, as in ‘super’, ‘superior’, ‘sumar’, ‘surgir’, or ‘surtido’. And it could account as to why ‘subir’ means to go up, because it means above. As you say it’s that *upo, the Indo-European ancestor of Latin ‘sub’. ‘Su’ without the ‘b’ took on a different meaning. Take the word ‘suplicio’ for example, means ‘prolonged or intense pain’. Here ‘intense’ relates to the “above’ or ‘beyond” pain as written with the ‘su’ prefix. I think it works the same in English with words such as ‘surmount’, or ‘surrogate’.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 30, 2014 @ 07:50:08

      The other word you’re referring to began, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, as Indo-European *uper-, whose native English descendant we easily recognize in over (just as upo- gave rise to native English up). Somehow Latin added an s- to each of those roots, ending up with super and sub.

      A word like Spanish surgir can be deceptive when it comes to its origins. The verb is from Latin surgere, a compound of sub in the sense ‘up from below’ and regere ‘to lead in a straight line, to guide.’


  2. Tropical Flowering Zone
    Apr 30, 2014 @ 09:18:15

    Yes, ‘surgir’ would be equivalent to ‘something that came up’, or something that happened, as in, for example, “en ese momento nos surgió un incoveniente”, =”at that moment we had an inconvenience”. As you see it cannot translate with a similar word. ‘Surgir’ then, doesn’t seem to have a similarity with English, other than perhaps ’emerged’? “An inconvenience ’emerged’, yet it doesn’t seem to have an equivalent in English.


  3. Tropical Flowering Zone
    Apr 30, 2014 @ 11:19:29

    ‘Suplicio’ is another tricky one, and the best explanation I found was in this link: from Chile. It explains it well, IMOHO.

    Yet in legal terms it’s used in latin: “SUPPLICIUM, civil law. A corporal punishment ordained by law; the punishment of death, so called because it was customary to accompany the guilty man to the place of execution and there offer supplications for him.” I also see it exists as a verb in English: to supplicate. Isn’t it strange that in English it retained its meaning but as a verb? Then I found out it’s derived from ‘supplex’ which means ‘suppliant’, and ‘plicate’ which means ‘add together’ and ‘multiply’. Then ‘placare’ is also in there, meaning to “appease, placate, and reconcile’. But the above link explains it better than me.

    In that sense, ‘supplicate’ in English uses ‘su’ as ‘sub’ (beneath) as a prefix to ‘supplex’, meaning ‘suppliant, kneeling, begging’, meaning that there’s ‘no appeasement or reconciliation’, so therefore the person is ‘supplicating’, therefore relating it somewhat to some form of suffering, “punishment’ or ‘torture’, in Latin (supplicium). However, some religions see ‘supplicating’ as a virtue. But why does ‘supplicate’ survive in English form only as a verb is one of oddities when figuring out these roots and how they changed.

    Thanks so much for reviving in me this interest in etymology again. I had this interest from long ago but you have taught me how deep it really goes. Excuse me also for the digression from the original theme or word.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 30, 2014 @ 12:33:41

      Latin supplicium, etymologically ‘bent down, folded under,’ had several senses. One was ‘an act performed to propitiate a deity.’ From that came the notion of making amends or atoning, especially through punishment. That sense survives in Spanish suplicio.

      Please be aware than in a word like English supplicate the prefix is not su- but sub-, whose b has assimilated to the following p of the root plic-. Older Spanish still had the spelling supplicio, but later spelling reforms did away with most double consonants in the written form of the modern language to conform to pronunciation.


  4. Tropical Flowering Zone
    Apr 30, 2014 @ 13:14:18

    I see, from ‘plico’ or ‘plicare’, the prefix ‘sub’ assimilating its ‘p’.


  5. shoreacres
    May 05, 2014 @ 20:08:28

    When I read “subitizing,” I thought immediately of subito, which I know as a musical term. For example, subito fortissimo would be a directly to suddenly begin playing very loudly.

    I found an interesting tidbit about the term on a trivia page, where there’s no guarantee of accuracy. Still, I thought this was an interesting response to someone asking about subito.

    “Attaca subito il seguente” means that the following movement (or the following tempo change) is to be played immediately, without pause or delay of any kind. I can think offhand of only one place in the literature where such an instruction appears in the middle of a movement — the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” piano sonata.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 05, 2014 @ 22:51:07

      The majority of our musical terms are Italian, which gives you a head start on Spanish, even if the members of a pair of cognates aren’t always exactly synonyms.

      Whether Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata is the only place in a major work where the instruction “Attaca subito il seguente” appears in the middle of a movement, I can’t say. When I searched a little, I found instances of that instruction appearing at the transition between movements.


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