The Spanish noun esguince means ‘a sprain,’ but a couple of other senses are ‘a twisting that a person does to avoid a blow or to keep from falling’ and ‘a facial gesture or bodily movement by which someone expresses disgust or disdain.’ The Spanish word traces back to the Vulgar Latin verb *exquīntiāre ‘to tear, rip, rend,’ a compound of the familiar prefix ex-, used here as an intensifier,’ and the root of the ordinal number quintus ‘fifth.’ The original meaning, then, would have been ‘to tear into five parts,’ but eventually the specifics of the arithmetic got lost (as is happening now with the English verb decimate, which for many speakers has lost its connection to the original sense ‘destroy a tenth of’).

Spanish has inherited Latin quintus as quinto ‘fifth.’ From quintus and the Latin element that meant ‘folded’ we have quíntuple/quintuple ‘fivefold.’ A quintillizo/quintuplet is ‘one of five siblings born at the same time.’ The Romans used Quintus as a name and English has followed suit: Patrick Hanks and Patricia Hodges report that in the 19th century, when Quintus was most popular, parents chose it to name a fifth son or a fifth child that happened to be male. The English name Quincy also traces back to Latin Quintus. So does Quentin, which reminds us that the American president John Adams chose Quincy as a middle name for his son (who later became the country’s sixth rather than fifth president), while Theodore Roosevelt chose Quentin as a first name for his last son.

The Romans named the fifth month in their calendar Quintīlis (later bumped to seventh place and ultimately renamed Iūlius), but now in statistics a quintil/quintile is ‘any one of the groups that results when a frequency distribution is divided into five equal parts.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Jun 04, 2015 @ 09:09:32

    If I wince is it ‘a facial gesture or bodily movement by which someone expresses disgust or disdain.’


  2. Maria F.
    Jun 04, 2015 @ 11:25:32

    I know this one well, but for some reason in P.R. it is not used in formal conversation. The reason being that “torcedura” took its place. So when someone has a sprained an ankle, he/she will say: “me torcí el tobillo”. Maybe in medical school they might use it, but in everyday language they use “torcer”. “Torcer” is another way of saying “twist”. “He “twisted” his ankle”. Another idiomatic idiosyncrasy. I have a feeling they prefer to use that here because it’s a bit more similar to “twist”, and since English is compulsory here since 1st grade, it makes some sense to me anyway.


  3. shoreacres
    Jun 08, 2015 @ 07:11:26

    I’m one of those whose understanding of “decimate” has been somewhat more expansive. I think of something that’s decimated as being very nearly destroyed.

    Faulkner named one of his primary characters Quentin Compson. The fictional Quentin drowned himself in the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles, there’s a plaque that reads:

    Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 08, 2015 @ 09:01:52

      That’s the way many people use decimate now, but I can still aim to hold back the tide and wish the seemingly inevitable word inflation hadn’t gotten a hold of that verb. Or some people might say that I wish it 110%.

      How unusual to put up a plaque commemorating a fictional event. Sounds like it’s right up your alley (or over your bridge) for one of your distinctive posts.


  4. Maria F.
    Jun 08, 2015 @ 08:49:33

    An interesting word in Spanish is “quinqué”, a gas oil lamp perfected by Antoine Quinquet, a pharmacist from París who marketed it with a more sophisticated design than Jean-Robert Argand who invented it. In French it’s “Quinquet” in his honor, and in Spanish it’s “quinqué”, still used in such way.é


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 08, 2015 @ 09:12:59

      Thanks for the French connection. If I ever knew the French word quinquet, I’d long since forgotten it.


      • Maria F.
        Jun 08, 2015 @ 11:45:13

        I suppose those “quinquets” must be collector items by now; as some of them were hooded (like the one in the linked article). Still, trying to find a reason why the fixation with #5. Then I looked up “pentagram” which as you know means “5 lines”, and the only thing that occurred to me, that is, hypothetically speaking, is the 5 point star, the pentagram. The pentagram can be constructed by connecting alternate vertices of a pentagon. It can also be constructed as a stellation of a pentagon, by extending the edges of a pentagon until the lines intersect. Then I read that in geometry, “stellation” is a regular polygon which symmetrically creates a regular star polygon. Obviously the word “stellation” comes from the Latin stellātus or stella, which means “star”. So other than this “stellar” meaning, I cannot come by any other significant meaning, hypothetically speaking, of why five is used. So that could be a “stellar” sprain (esguince) you have there (just kidding).


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Jun 08, 2015 @ 16:46:48

          Why speakers of Vulgar Latin chose to imagine something being torn into five parts rather than four or six or some other number may remain forever a mystery. The fact that people have five fingers on each hand, and that five is half of the ten that we use as the base of our numerical system (reflected, as we’ve said, in the verb decimar/decimate), may have led to the choice of five as the number of parts people imagined tearing something into. Or maybe not. And then there’s the verb partir ‘to split into parts,’ with no specific number of them being indicated.


  5. tintotinta311
    Oct 13, 2015 @ 13:51:36

    So we sprain our ankle or wrist because the foot and hand have 5 parts, but what about spraining the knee?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 13, 2015 @ 15:12:37

      I don’t know that we can say that we sprain an ankle or wrist because the foot and hand have five parts. I think the number of fingers and toes is coincidental, for the very reason you give, namely that other parts of the body that have nothing to do with five-ness, like an ankle, can also get sprained.


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