Oruga, the Spanish word for ‘caterpillar,’ developed from the synonymous Latin noun ūrūca. That Latin noun had another form, ērūca, and another meaning as the name for a certain plant in the cabbage (crucifer) family. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that it was “perhaps… so called from its hairy stems resembling caterpillars, or from the fact that cruciferous vegetables are often infested with caterpillars.” One name for that edible plant in English is colewort, the first part of which is a cognate of Spanish col ‘cabbage.’ Various other English names for the plant show an etymological connection to Latin ērūcarucola, rucoli, roquette, (salad) rocket, and rugula. If that last seems almost familiar, it’s probably because of its better-known form in American English, arugula. Apparently that version of the word came from a dialect of Italian, as opposed to the rucola in standard Italian. Notice how standard Italian retained the k sound between vowels in ērūca, while the dialect picked up the voicing of the vowels that surrounded the k and turned it into a g sound. Spanish did the same thing as ūrūca became oruga.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Aug 20, 2015 @ 21:19:20

    Oruga is an interesting word. Usually, I can contextualize your featured word, or associate it with something else, but even after your explanation, this one just sits there. It seems like it ought to be the name of a town in a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

    On the other hand, I’ve never thought about how coleslaw got its name. Now I know. Even better, I’ve finally solved the mystery of why the Dutch people around my home town would serve traditional lettuce, tomato and carrot salads, and call them (as I believed) “slaw.” It seems that the Dutch word sla was a word for salad generally, and not what we knew as coleslaw.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 20, 2015 @ 21:31:50

      I’m with you: until I researched this post, I never thought about orguga but merely accepted it as the Spanish word for ‘caterpillar.’ Etymology led me on a merry chase that ended with arugula, which some kind of caterpillar somewhere probably uses as a host plant.

      In contrast, I’ve known about slaw and salad and salt and salary for decades, but somehow I haven’t yet written about that family of words here. Another day, another post.


  2. Maria F.
    Aug 22, 2015 @ 07:04:38

    Apparently ‘ericius’ (from ‘rizo’ [curl]) is also related to ‘eruca’, “ericius” meaning “hedgehog” with Proto-Indo-European *gher ‎(“to bristle”). “Erizo” also means ‘sea urchin’ in Spanish, as without the prefix ‘o’, it’s ‘ruga’ which means derived from the Latin word ‘ruga’ (wrinkle; wrinkle; crease, small fold)







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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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