The strange (because of its semantics) Spanish verb chapuzar means, in the definition of the DRAE, ‘Meter a alguien de cabeza en el agua,’ which is to say ‘To put someone head-down into the water.’ Definitely not helpful to breathing, right? Why a language needs a verb like that isn’t obvious, nor, due to phonetic changes, is it obvious where the verb came from. The modern form of the word goes back to the end of the 1500s, but in the 1200s the verb was zapuzar and before that sopozar, in which we can finally begin to recognize the elements of the compound. The so- developed from Latin sub ‘under,’ and the second element is the same as in pozo ‘a well,’ so the notion was ‘[to put someone] under [the water in] a well.’

And what about the ‘head first’ part of the modern meaning? Joan Corominas gives the answer to that when he explains the change in the second vowel that took place on the way from sopozar to zapuzar. It seems there was influence from the similar-sounding and -meaning verb capuzar that had arisen from Latin caput ‘head.’ In essence, the two verbs merged—dare we say got submerged?—and chapuzar was the eventual result.

Although probably no connection to English comes to mind (other than the many words with sub- as a prefix), there is one. Spanish pozo developed from Latin puteus ‘a water well,’ which ultimately surfaced in the Old English borrowing pytt, the source of the modern noun pit whose fundamental meaning is ‘a cavity in the ground.’ That’s a different word from the pit that’s ‘the kernel in a fruit,’ but the same pit that as a verb means ‘to set in opposition,’ as when one candidate for political office is pitted against another. The semantic connection is via the type of pit that people have traditionally made in the ground for the purpose of staging combats, as for instance roosters in a cockpit. By another transference, the fact that a cockpit is a small, enclosed space led to the now-primary sense of the word: ‘the compartment in which the pilot of an airplane sits.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Oct 12, 2015 @ 09:00:45

    I knew a guy in college from a pit.,_Illinois


  2. etymologist
    Oct 12, 2015 @ 10:40:31

    I wonder . . . might this word have been used to describe the Inquisition’s equivalent of “water-boarding” of suspected infidels?


  3. Maria F.
    Oct 12, 2015 @ 17:47:11

    Steve, I had no idea that “cockpit” is “the compartment in which the pilot of an airplane sits.” It’s also the arena for cockfights (I wrote about these in my blog).


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 12, 2015 @ 18:00:11

      The original sense of cockpit was ‘an arena for cockfights,’ but the sense got extended to ‘the compartment in which the pilot of an airplane sits.’ That’s the most common meaning now because not a lot of cockfights take place anymore in the English-speaking world.


  4. shoreacres
    Oct 15, 2015 @ 19:34:12

    There are sailboat cockpits, too. In fact, sailboats can have a center cockpit, or an aft cockpit. There are businesses devoted to providing cockpit safety items, cockpit cushions, cockpit sunscreens, and cockpit tables — one of which is in the process of being varnished by yours truly.

    As soon as I saw caput, I thought of “kaput.” The relationship may not be there, etymologically, but there’s no question that someone who’s been decapitated is kaput.

    Speaking of being head-down in the water, is it right that the Spanish word patito translates as duckling? I’ve checked several sources, and it looks like it is.

    On an unrelated note, I’ve come across several articles about filibusters during the time when Texas was part of Mexico. I was surprised to read that filibuster is a Spanish word meaning freebooter, or pirate. Is that so? Some articles, like the one I linked, note the change in meaning to legislative delaying tactic, but don’t give any explanation.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 16, 2015 @ 20:10:38

      Thanks for adding information about the nautical cockpit, which I assume preceded the aeronautical one (ships being older than planes).

      The things you’ve read about filibuster are true:

      I assume the second part of the Dutch compound finds its echo in the English word booty ‘plunder,’ which the American Heritage Dictionary says probably comes from a Low German source (Low German is close to Dutch).

      There may be a connection between Latin caput and German kaputt, but the connection would require a couple of maybes to be true.


  5. kathryningrid
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 21:49:56

    This evokes in my mind’s eye an image of a diver rising up from the depths into a protected bubble of air, perhaps as though under an overturned boat. I suppose that’s not so far away from the idea of a pilot in a cockpit….


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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