Display and desplegar

English display and Spanish desplegar are cognates, but we can more easily understand the etymology of the Spanish verb. It comes from Medieval Latin displicāre, which changed the meaning of the classical Latin verb displicāreto scatter,a compound of dis- ‘apart’ and plicāre ‘to fold.’ The Medieval sense of displicāre, and hence desplegar, was ‘to unfold.’ English display has nothing to do with play, of course, but comes via Anglo-Norman despleier from the same Medieval Spanish displicāre that gave rise to desplegar. The modern Spanish verb has various senses: ‘to unfold, spread, open, display, expand, unfurl’ and, in a military sense, ‘to deploy.’ If English deploy looks suspiciously like display, it’s not a coincidence. Deploy goes back to Old French despleier, which evolved directly from classical Latin displicāre. As a result, English deploy and display are doublets, with the first coming from mainstream French and the second from Anglo-Norman.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 09, 2014 @ 21:56:03

    This helps to make sense of the biologists’ and ornithologists’ use of the word “display” in courting rituals. For example, when a male peacock displays before a female, he actually is unfurling, unfolding his feathers. I’ve always thought of “display” in this sense as mostly showing off, and it could be that, too. But this is another instance where knowing a little etymology makes a more precise use of a word possible. Fun!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 09, 2014 @ 22:21:30

      As willing as I am to resort to etymology to explain just about anything, when it comes to a courtship display I take the sense to be more ‘show off’ than ‘unfold,’ even though in the case of a peacock both senses happen to fit. I have the impression that there are at least some birds whose courtship displays involve showing off with little or no unfurling or unfolding of feathers. One group that comes to mind now is bower birds, where the main part of the courtship display involves putting together elaborate “bowers.” The Wikipedia article on bower birds says: “There are two main types of bowers. One clade of bowerbirds build so-called maypole bowers, which are constructed by placing sticks around a sapling; in some species, these bowers have a hut-like roof. The other major bowerbuilding clade builds an avenue type-bower made of two walls of vertically placed sticks. In and around the bower, the male places a variety of brightly colored objects he has collected. These objects — usually different among each species — may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass. The males spend hours arranging this collection. Bowers within a species share a general form but do show significant variation, and the collection of objects reflects the biases of males of each species and its ability to procure items from the habitat, often stealing them from neighboring bowers. Several studies of different species have shown that colors of decorations males use on their bowers match the preferences of females.”


  2. shoreacres
    Jul 10, 2014 @ 22:14:52

    I was thinking about this today, and realized that most of the birds whose courting behavior I see are the sort who display like the peacock: assorted herons, egrets, boat-tailed grackles, and even the mockingbird, who’ll combine wing-spreading with the singing and “dancing” common to so many other species.

    I’d forgotten about the bower-builders, who really are unique and interesting. Coincidentally, Texans ought to have a special appreciation for bowers. The fiddlers who accompanied the Battle of San Jacinto played “Will You Come to the Bower?” while the Texans took care of business. Townes Van Zandt has a nice version of the song.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 10, 2014 @ 22:49:39

      I didn’t know about that song that the fiddlers played at the Battle of San Jacinto, but now I both know about it and have heard it. When I hear the word bower, it reminds me that another name for the Clematis drummondii that I’ve featured so many times on my nature blog is Texas virgin’s bower.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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