More stunning tarantula-related matters

The last post discussed a word used in the Philippines, tarantado, which had been shortened slightly from Spanish atarantado ‘stunned, dazed.’ One question raised but not answered in that post was how atarantado lost its first syllable when it passed into the languages of the Philippines. Linguists have a name for that process: the dropping of one or more sounds as the beginning of a word is called aféresis/aph(a)eresis, a Greek word that means literally ‘a taking away.’ In the case of atarantado, the word stress falls three syllables after the initial a-, which is therefore weakly pronounced; the next step was for Filipinos to drop it altogether. (For a Spanish example of aféresis, consider how ahora gave rise to the shortened ora; for an English example, consider how a raccoon has become for some speakers a coon.)

Yesterday’s post didn’t explain apheresis, but it did explain that Old Italian attarentato, the predecessor of Spanish atarantado, developed from the notion of a person being stunned by the bite of a tarantula, which is a type of large, hairy spider that had previously gotten its name from the southeastern Italian city of Taranto. The inhabitants of that city must have had vivid imaginations, because Taranto also lent its name to the condition called tarantismo/tarantism. A little over a century ago, the aptly named Century Dictionary defined the term this way: ‘A dancing mania; specifically and originally, a dancing mania of the south of Italy in those who had been bitten by a tarantula, or thought they had been, and their imitators.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary had this definition: ‘A nervous affection producing melancholy, stupor, and an uncontrollable desire to dance. It was supposed to be produced by the bite of the tarantula, and considered to be incapable of cure except by protracted dancing to appropriate music.’

The type of rapid dance that Italians from the 1400s through the 1600s believed could cure tarantism came to be known, appropriately, as a tarantella. Spanish and English have borrowed the Italian word, with Spanish spelling it tarantela. In the centuries since then, the connection to tarantulas has largely been lost, and anyone can compose, play, or dance a tarantella.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Oct 28, 2015 @ 06:06:02

    Apheresis seemed vaguely familiar. I decided I must know it from medicine, where it refers to the process of removing whole blood, then taking away a component: like platelets.

    When I looked at the Wikipedia entry for the linguistic meaning, a little mystery was solved. One of my Australian readers has used the expression, “Strewth!’ I’d meant to ask her about it, but never did. Now I see the Wiki notes it as another example of apheresis in informal speech: “English oath God’s truth > familiar Australian English: strewth (exclamation).”

    The connection between the tarantula and the tarantella is interesting. One of my favorite paintings at the Crystal Bridges Museum was John Singer Sargent’s “Rosina Ferrara Dancing the Tarantella.” I liked it so much I picked up a postcard reproduction, which I’m still using as a bookmark.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 28, 2015 @ 07:07:02

      Thanks for pointing out the medical meaning of apheresis, which I was unaware of.

      I was likewise unfamiliar with the Australian Strewth!, but I was able to guess its etymology based on a similar oath, Zounds!, which I knew had developed from God’s wounds!. Religion used to play a greater part in many people’s lives and language than it does now.

      It’s been two years since we visited Crystal Bridges. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember the painting “Rosina Ferrara Dancing the Tarantella.” Maybe I somehow missed it in my wanderings through the museum. The article about Rosina that you linked to is fascinating. Who’d have though she would end up living happily for decades in the suburbs of New York? I foresee a post from you about her.


      • shoreacres
        Oct 28, 2015 @ 20:28:35

        I didn’t know about Zounds!. I vaguely remember it from a cartoon, but I’m not sure which one.

        My dad wasn’t much for swearing, unless he was involved with plumbing. Then, we might hear the occasional “Damn!” But, when he was talking with the fellas about conditions at work, or when he was utterly frustrated with politicians or bureaucrats, we might hear, “Judas Priest” or “Jesus H. Christ.”

        I still remember asking my favorite aunt about that second one, when I was in grade school. She informed me that only grown-up men could say that, and we should pay it no mind. I never did find out what the H stood for, although I thought it might be Henry.


  2. Shannon
    Nov 05, 2015 @ 12:33:53

    Where DO you get this stuff, Steve? Boggles my mind. I need you in my classroom to keep things interesting. 😀


  3. julie id
    Mar 08, 2022 @ 17:00:24

    “Strewth” and “zounds” are solid examples of apheresis, but does loss of initial a/e/schwa even rise to that level? It is common in all sorts of language pairs, especially when one of them is Spanish. España/Spain, estado/state, estúpido/stupid, etc. [Russian (E)katarina for a quick example not involving s-]

    Of all the issues involved in Tagalog or Cebuano absorbing Spanish, I would think this would be the least surprising! I’m a bit startled at y’all being startled by it.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 08, 2022 @ 18:01:30

      In a Spanish/English pair like estúpido/stupid, the beginning of the English word matches the original Latin. It was Spanish that consistently added a vowel at the beginning of words starting with s followed by a consonant. The default vowel that Spanish added in that phonetic environment was e. It’s hard for Spanish speakers not to pronounce it, so they have trouble with my first name. When I lived in Honduras I taught my students to pronounce it by starting with a long hissed s for a few seconds and then sliding into the rest of my name.

      Cebuano has native words that begin ata-, so it’s not clear to me why the first vowel in atarantado got dropped. My guess is that it was because the word is rather long.


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