The previous post mentioned that Spanish and English borrowed lava from Italian, which may have acquired it from Latin lābēs ‘a fall,’ given the way lava “falls” down the side of a volcano. The Latin noun had come from the verb lābī, whose meanings included ‘to move gently along a smooth surface, to fall, slide; to slide, slip, or glide down, to fall down, to sink.’ From that verb came the adjective lābilis, meaning ‘slipping, gliding, prone to slip or slide,’ which Spanish and English have carried over as lábil/labile. The definitions given in the DRAE and the American Heritage Dictionary are, respectively:

1. Que resbala o se desliza fácilmente.
2. Frágil, caduco, débil.
3. Poco estable, poco firme en sus resoluciones.
4. Quím. Dicho de un compuesto: Inestable, que se transforma fácilmente en otro.

1. Open to change; readily changeable or unstable: labile chemical compounds; tissues with labile cell populations.
2. Fluctuating widely: labile hypertension; labile emotions.
3. Decomposing readily: the labile component of organic matter.

While you may be hard put to think of any other related words, once I point out that the past participle of Latin lābī was lāpsus, you should immediately think of lapso/lapse. (English can use lapse as a verb, but the DRAE doesn’t show a corresponding *lapsar or *lapsear.) In addition, both languages sometimes use the original Latin noun lāpsus, which may be best known in the phrase lāpsus linguae ‘a slip of the tongue.’ Less frequently seen phrases are lāpsus memoriae ‘a lapse of memory’ and, especially in the computer age, lāpsus calamī ‘a slip of the pen.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman



4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 30, 2015 @ 19:36:41

    I’ve never taken a particular look at the Spanish-language links in your sidebar, but I noticed them tonight. Some are easy enough, like the Word of the Day. But I’m curious about El candidato meláncolico. I went over to the page to see if I could figure out why it’s so named, but I couldn’t. Surely he’s not being made melancholy by language?

    As for lava, which slides, slips, glides down, or sinks — how could we have forgotten the lava lamp? According to Collector’s Weekly, “Lava lamps are based on a simple scientific principle—that certain liquids, like oil and water, don’t mix. To make a lava lamp work, at least of one of the liquids has to possess the ability to change density without changing form.” Most lava lamps combine water and wax, and it’s the wax which is — labile!

    The very mention of a slip of the tongue took me straight back to Louis Untermeyer’s A Treasury of Laughter.
    It was published in 1946, and there was a copy on my parent’s bookshelves. I still remember this, from its pages:

    “He aimed at Lee Wing,
    but he winged Willie Wong —
    a slight, but regrettable
    slip of the Tong.”

    I don’t know who was responsible for that, but I’m going to find out, because I ordered a copy tonight, with the same blue cloth cover I remember.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 30, 2015 @ 21:03:46

      In looking at the blog El candidato meláncolico I see that it was named after a book on etymology that the blogger wrote, but I can’t tell why he named the book that way. One guess is that the words candidato and melancólico have interesting etymologies.

      Like you, I’d thought about lava lamps, but I ended up not saying about that cultural artifact of the 1970s. That’s a nice segue you made from the lamp’s wax to labile.

      I’m pretty sure there was a copy of A Treasury of Laughter in my family’s library when I was growing up, though I seem to remember a paper jacket on the book. I see Amazon is selling used hardcover copies for as little as 1¢, plus $3.99 for postage, and I assume you ordered a copy in that price range. I expect some of the humor in there to turn up in future posts of yours.


  2. Maria F.
    Jul 31, 2015 @ 09:14:40

    I looked it up in English and it’s also used as a compound word such in “heat-labile” and “thermolabile”.

    As to the title of the book “El Candidato Melancólico”, the author states in the introduction that the title itself is deceptive: “The Melancholic Candidate” is not about moods. The book is about words, and the title was chosen for its hidden meaning, “The Man in ‘White’ who had the “Black Bile””, as “candidatus” comes from Latin “candidus” (‘white), because those who chose to office in ancient Rome wore a “white” toga. “Melancholy” comes from the Greek, “melan” (black) and “khole” (bile), and is reminiscent of the epoch when “melancholia” was so utterly despicable (a black liquid bile substance), that Romans had to wear white (candidus) togas to feel purified. So the author is really referring to how time changes words in a purely symbolic manner. It doesn’t have to do with mood, but with how time changes the meaning of words.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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