An English learner of Spanish might come across salto, treat it as a false friend, and translate it as ‘salt,’ but of course the noun salto means ‘a leap, a jump,’ just as saltar means ‘to leap, to jump.’ The Spanish verb developed from the synonymous Latin saltāre, a frequentative form based on saltus, the past participle of the verb salīre, the meaning of whose Spanish descendant salir has jumped to ‘to go out.’

The Latin noun saltātiō, with stem saltātiōn-, meant the kind of jumping around that we call ‘dancing,’ and that is one meaning of saltación, the form in which Spanish has borrowed the Latin word. The DRAE gives another sense as ‘Arte de saltar.‘ English has also turned to the Latin original, carrying it over as saltation. The American Heritage Dictionary gives three meanings:

1. The act of leaping, jumping, or dancing.
2. Discontinuous movement, transition, or development; advancement by leaps.
3. Genetics A single mutation that drastically alters the phenotype.
Geologists have also appropriated the word. According to a Wikipedia article, it “is a specific type of particle transport by fluids such as wind or water. It occurs when loose material is removed from a bed and carried by the fluid, before being transported back to the surface. Examples include pebble transport by rivers, sand drift over desert surfaces, soil blowing over fields, or even snow drift over smooth surfaces such as those in the Arctic or Canadian Prairies.” For more on saltation, specifically as it applies to sand dunes, you can read a paragraph from the Great Sand Dunes website. And if you’d like to see a couple of examples of saltation, you can check out two recent posts on my other blog:

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

15 Comments (+add yours?)

    May 11, 2014 @ 14:18:26

    Interesting, as always, Steve. I’ve long wondered why “salto” means ‘waterfall’ rather than ‘fountain.’ I guess you can leap down as well as up.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 11, 2014 @ 14:29:19

      You’ve got it: leaping from a precipice will take you up briefly but then down, down, down. The up and down is apparent in the French cognate saut, formerly sault, as you can see in Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan), a name that refers to the rapids in Saint Mary’s River.


  2. kathryningrid
    May 11, 2014 @ 22:49:01

    Je saute de joie à la lecture de ce morceau de sagesse! 😉


  3. Trackback: Sand blowing off a dune | Portraits of Wildflowers
  4. shoreacres
    May 12, 2014 @ 06:52:57

    I just was walking through the kitchen, ready for a second cup of coffee, when Saltillo, Mexico, came to mind. I wondered if the name might be related to salto.

    It seems there is a relationship. One of the dictionaries in your sidebar says that saltillo means “a little hop, or leap.” And after all, Saltillo is famous for its waterfall — the first one I’d ever seen, when I was in Monterey for a conference.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 12, 2014 @ 07:35:45

      I’d never thought about it till now. Saltillo isn’t a standard Spanish word, though of course it could be interpreted as a diminutive of salto. At

      the Spanish-language Wikipedia article on Saltillo has this to say about the origin of the name:

      “No se ha determinado con plena certeza el origen del nombre de Saltillo, ya que existen varias versiones. Una de ellas sugiere que se trata de una palabra chichimeca, corrompida y castellanizada, que significaba “tierra alta de muchas aguas”. Otra versión, quizá más acertada, lo relaciona con un pequeño salto de agua que caía desde una elevación del terreno en cuya cima está el principal ojo de agua del lugar y al pie del cual se fundó la villa. Desde este manantial se construyó una acequia que, por gravedad, surtía de agua a la población. Probablemente fue entonces cuando desapareció la pequeña cascada.”

      The gist of it is that there are several possible explanations for the name. One considers it a corruption of a Chichimeca word that would have meant ‘high land with lots of water.’ Another, which the article gives greater credence to, follows your line of reasoning and traces the name to what would have been a small waterfall that existed when the town was founded near its base; later, construction of an irrigation system would have caused the waterfall to disappear.

      None of this appears in the shorter English-language article on Saltillo.


  5. Maria F.
    May 13, 2014 @ 19:05:54

    And I’m going to sauté those vegetables on the pan!


  6. Maria F.
    May 13, 2014 @ 19:21:34

    The Spanish equivalent to sauté is: saltear or sofreír. In P.R saltear is not used, but sofreír is (to fry). It also means a way to cook, definitely an act of “leaping, jumping, or dancing” of food.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 13, 2014 @ 19:49:32

      Saltear is from the same root as salto, but sofreír is an unrelated word. It comes from Latin sub + frigere, where the main verb meant ‘to fry’ and the prefix sub imparted the sense ‘a little.’ When I lived in Honduras I learned about sofrito, which in terms of its form is the past participle of sofreír. As for its meaning, the DRAE gives this definition:

      ‘Condimento que se añade a un guiso, compuesto por diversos ingredientes fritos en aceite, especialmente cebolla o ajo entre otros.’


  7. Maria F.
    May 13, 2014 @ 19:59:57

    Yes, I was thinking that ‘sofreír’ would be the equivalent to ‘stir-fry’, more than ‘sauté’.


  8. Maria F.
    May 13, 2014 @ 20:29:15

    Well, even ‘stir fry’ continues to translate to ‘saltear’, and so does ‘sofreír’ to ‘sauté’, but those Spanish-English dictionary translations don’t get into root words, they usually give the ‘equivalent of’.


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