Sometimes an arrangement of letters happens to form a word in both Spanish and English even though the words have nothing to do with each other. For example, English son means ‘male offspring’ while Spanish son means ‘they are.’ At other times, identically spelled words in the two languages do turn out to be related, even if the semantics might not initially suggest a link.

One night I was watching a travel program about Belgium, and in a segment about a church the narrator used the word nave, which is ‘the long central part of a church where people sit.’ In Spanish, of course, the two-syllable nave is ‘a ship.’ While the Spanish and English versions of n-a-v-e may seem unrelated, they’re actually the same word, with both coming from the Latin word for ‘ship,’ nāvis. The connection is that during the Middle Ages members of the Roman Catholic Church began to use nāvis as a metaphor for the central part of a church because its shape reminded them of a ship.  English then borrowed the Latin word as nave.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 20, 2016 @ 10:22:36

    The idea of the Church itself as a ship goes back even further, to Gregory the Great, aka Pope Gregory I. This page from the website of the second congregation I served in Houston has some details about that, a bit of etymology, and a photo of the wonderful, symbolic ship that hangs in their nave. I’m glad they provided an enlargement. It’s a wonderful piece.

    I’ve never thought about it before, but a good portion of my biography is rooted in nāvis: a movement from nave to navigation, as it were.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 20, 2016 @ 10:33:08

      I didn’t know about Pope Gregory and his promoting the metaphor of the church as a ship. A Wikipedia article has this: “Although popular legend credits Pope St. Gregory the Great with inventing Gregorian chant, scholars believe that it arose from a later Carolingian synthesis of Roman chant and Gallican chant.” I see that not until the time of Pope Gregory XIII did we get the Gregorian calendar in 1582.

      So you’ve had symbolic ships and real ships. If you added that you’d been in the Navy, that would have been quite a surprise.


  2. shoreacres
    Feb 20, 2016 @ 10:37:37

    Maybe I need to round things out with membership in the Texas Navy.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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