On my other blog a few days ago I showed a photograph of a shrub that grows in the southwestern part of the United States. Botanists know it as Ericameria nauseosa, but one of its vernacular names is chamisa. That appears to be a respelling, based on the pronunciation in New World Spanish of z as s, of chamiza. WordMagic defines the word as ‘hierba gramínea silvestre y medicinal que vive en humedales y pantanos, se emplea para cubrir los techos de las chozas. Various dictionaries translate the word into English as ‘brush[wood], thatch palm, thatch.’ Joan Corominas glosses the word as ‘chamarasca, leña menuda,’ and says it is attested as far back as 1601. As for etymology, Corominas says that Spanish took the term from Portuguese chamiça or Galician chamiza, both of which are based on chama, the cognate of Spanish llama as well as English flame*. The connection to fire makes sense, given that chamiza could be used as kindling and chamarasca means ‘a brisk fire made of brushwood.’

One of the peculiarities of early Spanish is that an initial Latin pl-, cl- and fl- often changed to ll, which was originally pronounced (and still is in Spain) [λ]. For example, Latin plenum became Spanish lleno, Latin clavem became Spanish llave, and in the case that concerns us, Latin flamma became Spanish llama**. Portuguese took the sound change even further, so that those three Latin words developed in Portuguese to cheio, chave, and chama, that last giving rise to Portuguese chamiça and Galician chamiza. Another related word that Spanish took from Portuguese is chamuscar, which means ‘to sear, char, scorch, singe.’


* The American Heritage Dictionary explains that English flame came from Anglo-Norman flaumbe, variant of Old French flambe, from flamble, from Latin flammula, diminutive of flamma.

** Although it’s possible for the type of llama that roams parts of South America to catch fire, the zoological llama is an unrelated word that comes from Quechua.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mrsdaffodil
    Nov 09, 2014 @ 11:47:54

    I’m glad you posted this, as I had been wondering about the association I felt vaguely in the back of my mind about chamisa after I saw your photograph of the shrub the other day. It was of chamisa as kindling and I learned of it either during my travels in New Mexico or when reading a novel by Cormac McCarthy.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 09, 2014 @ 12:37:00

      Another reader asked about chamisa as a word (as opposed to a plant), so I did some digging. Interesting that you already knew about the ‘kindling’ meaning. From what I see online, Cormac McCarthy has set at least one of his works in the fictional town of Chamisaville.


  2. shoreacres
    Nov 13, 2014 @ 20:26:26

    Finally, when I read your last phrase about “‘to sear, char, scorch, singe,” I made the local connection. There’s a restaurant in Houston with a fabulous reputation, called Chama Gaucha. Their site is tri-lingual. You can read about them here, in Portuguese.

    As I was looking at the photos — and the menu! — I suddenly had another hunch, about port wine. I found that it is Portuguese, but named for Oporto. And now I remember that I was introduced to Madeira while in the Canary Islands. This certainly has been my week for appreciating Portugal!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 13, 2014 @ 21:07:25

      Yay, Portugal, where I spent the summer of 1966. Oporto, a town on the Portuguese coast, means literally ‘the port.’ Madeira (like Spanish madera) means ‘wood,’ so the island of Madeira was named for the woods that must have covered a good part of the island. As a matter of fact, the surprising English cognate is matter.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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