In a bit of versifying on my other blog recently I used the uncommon and now mostly literary English verb lave, which Spanish speakers will easily recognize as a cognate of lavar ‘to wash.’ I assumed English took the word from Old French laver, but in looking up the etymology of lave I found that the Old French verb merely reinforced an earlier borrowing, one in which Old English created the verb lafian directly from Latin lavāre. I’d also assumed that lava, the volcanic substance for which Spanish and English use the same word, was related, but The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the noun came from Italian, which may have inherited it from Latin lābēs ‘a fall,’ given the way lava “falls” down the side of a volcano. Yet another thing I learned is that Spanish has a second noun lava that is related to lavar and that engineers use to mean ‘the act of washing,’ as applied to minerals, for example.

The two etymological trails meet in a heavy-duty handwashing product that I remember from childhood and that I see still exists: Lava soap, which contains particles of the ground-up volcanic rock called pumice.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 23, 2015 @ 22:15:36

    I grew up with Lava in our lavatory, and still keep a bar around. It’s very useful.

    There’s one very specific use of “lave” that’s still current, if not common. It pops up in relation to Christian baptism, particularly within the Roman Catholic church. Their denominational supply houses sell “lave towels” meant to dry off the baby being baptized, and there are occasional uses of the word as a verb, particularly where groups are battling over sprinkling or dunking. Here’s one example, drawn from an 1880s article: “The particular mode of baptism may be either to immerse or to lave…”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 24, 2015 @ 04:10:32

      Thanks for adding that specialized Christian usage of lave, which I wasn’t aware of and which doesn’t appear in any of the dictionaries I consulted. The 1913 Webster’s, which I did consult while putting together this post, gives one definition of the verb as ‘to ladle; pour or dip with a ladle,’ but labels it obsolete.


  2. Maria F.
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 22:07:28

    Fascinating what Linda said. In trying how to link baptism to “lave”, I looked up “baptise” on the EOD, and found this:

    baptize (v.)
    c. 1300, from Old French batisier (11c.), from Latin baptizare, from Greek baptizein “immerse, dip in water,” also figuratively, “be over one’s head” (in debt, etc.), “to be soaked (in wine);” in Greek Christian usage, “baptize;” from baptein “to dip, steep, dye, color,” from PIE root *gwabh- “to dip, sink.” Christian baptism originally consisted in full immersion. Related: Baptized; baptizing.


    immersion (n.)
    mid-15c., from Late Latin immersionem (nominative immersio), noun of action from past participle stem of immergere, from assimilated form of in- “into, in, on, upon” (see in- (2)) + Latin mergere “plunge, dip” (see merge). Meaning “absorption in some interest or situation” is from 1640s. As a method of teaching a foreign language, it is from 1965, trademarked by the Berlitz company.


    merge (v.)
    1630s, “to plunge or sink in,” from Latin mergere “to dip, dip in, immerse, plunge,” probably rhotacized from *mezgo, from PIE *mezg- “to dip, plunge” (cognates: Sanskrit majjati “dives under,” Lithuanian mazgoju “to wash”). Legal sense of “absorb an estate, contract, etc. into another” is from 1726. Related: Merged; merging. As a noun, from 1805.

    So “merge” is what apparently linked “lave” to baptism: “merge” means “to wash” in Lithuanian (mazgoju). “As per the 2011 census, 77.2% of Lithuanians belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. The Church has been the majority denomination since the Christianisation of Lithuania at the end of the 14th century. In the first half of the 20th century, the Lutheran Protestant church had around 200,000 members, 9% of the total population, mostly Protestant Lithuanians and ethnic Germans from the former Memel Territory, but it has declined since 1945 with the removal of the German population. Small Protestant communities are dispersed throughout the northern and western parts of the country.”-Wiki
    “The Lithuanian language is often said to be the most conservative living Indo-European language, retaining many features of Proto-Indo-European now lost in other Indo-European languages.”-Wiki

    This is an interesting link also:

    The “sprinkling” is also linked with the Asperges ceremony:

    “Sprinkling ritual of the Catholic church, 1550s, from Late Latin asperges, noun use of 2nd person singular future indicative of Latin aspergere “to scatter, strew upon, sprinkle,” from ad “to” (see ad-) + spargere “to sprinkle” (see sparse). The word is taken from the phrase Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor, from Psalm 51 (Vulgate), sung during the rite of sprinkling a congregation with holy water.”-OED


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 25, 2015 @ 07:14:18

      I can see that you had a good time, Maria, when you took the plunge and let all this word history wash over you as you immersed yourself in the refreshing waters of etymology. I never get tired of dipping myself into them either.


      • Maria F.
        Jul 25, 2015 @ 07:25:31

        I really enjoyed it Steven, I never thought about ending up in Lithuania, but that word retained the original meaning of “lave” (in meaning); furthermore, the polemics of dipping vs. sprinkling are truly fascinating, of course, Linda knows more about this than myself.


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