The word svelte is rare in English because of its sv spelling, and the sb in the Spanish equivalent esbelto is only somewhat less rare (there’s esbirro ‘henchman’ and esbozo ‘sketch’, for example). Esbelto/svelte, which means ‘gracefully slender, slim’, was borrowed from Italian svelto, the past participle of the verb svellere ‘to stretch out’. That verb developed from Vulgar Latin *exvellere, where the familiar prefix ex- meant ‘out of’, and Latin vellere meant, with respect to an animal, ‘to pluck, pull out, remove the hair or feathers’.

You may be hard-pressed to think of any relatives, but if I tell you the past participle of Latin vellere was vulsus, you can easily see the relationship to the familiar words convulsar/convulse and revulsión/revulsion. There’s also the less-common evulsión/evulsion, which means ‘the act of plucking out’, and which contains the same two semantic elements found in esbelto/svelte. It’s fair to say that some people find evulsion a cause of revulsion.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cecilia Mary Gunther
    Mar 11, 2015 @ 17:36:26

    I love the word svelte.. especially if it is applied to me! Vain creature that i am! c


  2. shoreacres
    Mar 11, 2015 @ 21:13:49

    Better svelte than a Svengali. Of course, when I see sv, my first thought always is of the common abbreviations that accompany any vessel’s name: around here, either “s/v” for sailing vessel, or “m/v” for motor vessels. Of course there are complications, depending on historical circumstance, national origin and purpose: SS for steamship, PS for paddle steamer, RMS for Royal Mail Steamer, and so on.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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