Azor and Azores

Spanish and English use the plural Azores as the name of a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean some 900 miles west of the coast of Portugal, which the islands are a part of. (The Portuguese call them the Açores). Not as well known as the Azores, especially to English speakers, is the lower-case Spanish word azores, also a plural, whose singular is azor. An azor is a type of bird that English calls a goshawk, which is to say ‘a goose hawk, a hawk that preys on geese.’ The Spanish name evolved from Vulgar Latin *acceptor, which we’re likely to misinterpret as ‘someone or something that accepts.’ Like our verb aceptar/accept, Vulgar Latin *acceptor developed from the past participle of Latin capere, which had the stronger senses ‘to take, grab, seize.’ As a result, Spanish azor, like *acceptor and its standard Latin predecessor accipiter, was conceived as the name of a particular type of bird that seizes its prey. (Using another Latin word, Spanish and English call that kind of bird a raptor).

From azor Spanish made the verb azorar, which with reference to an azor and its prey means ‘to frighten, disturb, pursue.’ The verb can also mean ‘to urge on [an animal]’ and, extending its scope to people, ‘to ruffle, fluster, embarrass, irritate.’ The corresponding noun is azoramiento, whose senses include ‘alarm, embarrassment, excitement.’

The Catalan linguist Joan Corominas pointed out that Vulgar Latin *acceptor led not only to Spanish azor but also to Old Spanish acetor, from which came acetorero ‘a person who raises and trains birds of prey.’ With the loss of its o, that word became acetrero, which has been further shortened to cetrero. A cetrero is ‘a falconer, a person who uses a bird of prey for hunting.’

Robert Frost ended a well-known poem with the line “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I’ll end this entry with a thought I trust you won’t find startling, that one could do worse than be an azor de palabras.


UPDATE. The second commenter on this article mentioned that a bird appears on the flag of the Azores, something I hadn’t known. In looking up that flag, I found a Wikipedia article which states that the early Portuguese settlers were confused in their identification, and that the bird they saw on the islands wasn’t a goshawk but a type of buzzard—which presumably looked like a goshawk. Such misidentifications are common, as in central Texas, where I live, and where the Ashe juniper trees are erroneously called cedars.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Nov 29, 2014 @ 12:11:43

    I know azores is used here, but I rarely ever hear it. I think it’s substituted for other words such as “perturbar” or “perturbaciones”, or “molestarse” “agitarse” or “asustarse”.


  2. shoreacres
    Dec 03, 2014 @ 21:27:41

    How appropriate that the Azores show an azor on their flag. I had no idea what the name of the island group meant. Now I do.

    I had to laugh at azor de palabras. What images that raises!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 04, 2014 @ 07:00:19

      I’m so glad you mentioned the flag, because I had no idea there’s an an açor on it. I’ve updated the post to include a link to a picture of the flag. The article containing it claims the Portuguese misidentified the birds on the islands.


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