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