When I bought a new faucet for my kitchen sink some years ago, I couldn’t help noticing that the box it came in was a sort of Rosetta stone, though with cardboard in lieu of the stone that would have made the container impractically heavy and expensive. The three kinds of writing on the box were not ancient Greek and two forms of Egyptian, but the modern languages English, Spanish, and French. For this blog’s audience I’ll forgo the French, but the English text identified the product as a “HighArc Kitchen Faucet” and the Spanish as a “Grifo de Cuello de Cisne.” I leave it to you to decide whether cuello de cisne ‘swan’s neck’ is a more poetic description than high-arc [which I’ve respelled]. I wasn’t familiar with grifo, but by context it had to mean ‘faucet.’ To my surprise, when I looked up the word I found that it’s the same grifo that originally meant and still means ‘griffin,’ which English also spells griffon and gryphon. The Spanish and English versions of the word ultimately trace back to grups, the ancient Greek name for the fabulous creature. As a refresher for you and me, here’s how Noah Webster defined griffon in his 1828 dictionary:

In the natural history of the ancients, an imaginary animal said to be generated between the lion and eagle. It is represented with four legs, wings and a beak, the upper part resembling an eagle, and the lower part a lion. This animal was supposed to watch over mines of gold and hidden treasures, and was consecrated to the sun. The figure of the griffon is seen on ancient medals, and is still borne in coat-armor. It is also an ornament of Greek architecture.

I proceeded to do an online search and turned up many images of griffons. I found that people have extended the use of the word to a type of vulture, which isn’t that much of a stretch, and also to a type of dog, which is quite a stretch. Apparently the curved shape of the mythological griffon’s eagle-like beak was what led Spanish to use grifo metaphorically for ‘a faucet.’ My faucet, with its cuello de cisne, added a different bird to the mix.

While English doesn’t use griffin as a verb and hasn’t made a verb like *griffinize from it, Spanish has used grifo in its original meaning of a mythical creature to create grifarse, which means ‘to rise up, rear up, stand up.’ The DRAE adds two senses of that reflexive verb that have developed in Costa Rica: ‘to get goose bumps; to get high on marijuana.’ It seems that the Costa Ricans have rich imaginations indeed.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

[This is an updated version of a post from 2010.]


17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Ruebush
    Apr 28, 2016 @ 08:27:39

    My faucet boxes have never been this educational.

    I scrolled down the images page of griffons and soon encountered mostly dogs. Perhaps people like that name.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 28, 2016 @ 09:13:59

      I’ve found with Google image collections that the farther down I browse, the more the pictures depart from the subject I searched for. In some cases people’s titles have misidentified what’s in their photographs, and Google is just going by those mistaken titles. In other cases, though, I can’t figure out why Google has included an image.

      In this case, there are a lot more griffon dogs than actual griffons (of which zero exist), so after an initial tribute to the ancients’ flight of fancy, Google comes back to reality.


  2. shoreacres
    Apr 29, 2016 @ 08:00:23

    I’d never heard of the griffon breed, so I did a little light searching, and turned up a funny fact. In Kansas, the griffon is used as a K-9 drug dog. Perhaps they could be adapted to Costa Rica.

    When I visited the Oak Island winery, in the course of conversation Jim Frascone mentioned the number of people producing mead in the area. One of them has a place called the Griffin Meadery. It’s just north of Houston, and looks like a very nice place. It certainly is a nice way to keep a bit of legend alive.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 29, 2016 @ 08:21:13

      When I was in college I discovered a very sweet Jewish mead. In searching just now I figured out that the brand must have been Schapiro’s. Some time after that 1984 article the company went out of business but I see it’s been revived. Whether it still makes mead isn’t clear. It’s a coincidence that Texas now hosts a bunch of meaderies. Was this past winter cold enough for you to break open your bottle of “Oak Island Buzz”?


  3. shoreacres
    Apr 30, 2016 @ 06:44:28

    The winter would have been cold enough, but a friend in North Carolina whose dad used to make fruit wines, and who received a couple of bottles from Oak Island after Hurricane Ike, kept making little noises about the mead: was it as good as the others? is it sweet, or dry? would I recommend it? On impulse, I sent the bottle to her as a gift. Now, I’m waiting to replace it on a next trip to Anahuac.

    There was another coincidence in your link. While I was reading the other articles and looking at the advertisements, I ran into a small article about Zito’s bakery on Bleecker Street. It’s closed now, but it was a favorite of my blog friend, EllaElla, who disappeared and died such an unfortunate death. She was a foodie in New York before all that was cool, so she wrote a good bit about her favorite NYC foods, haunts, and history. She once said Zito’s was the reason she never baked bread while she lived in the Village.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 30, 2016 @ 08:09:33

      I remember the sad story of EllaElla.

      I hadn’t looked at any of the other articles or ads in that issue. In scrolling down a few pages just now I saw an ad for ShrinkLink. For $15 you could phone in and get 10 minutes with a PhD psychologist or a psychiatrist. Oh, New York.

      After your next trip to Anahuac and a new bottle of mead, perhaps you’ll have the makings of a different sort of post, especially if you write it under the influence of a good amount of said mead.


  4. kathryningrid
    May 02, 2016 @ 12:15:51

    All I can say is that I would far rather have a gryphon/griffin with a swan’s neck in my house than a mere high-arc faucet. Perhaps if I sample a bit of that excellent Costa Rican attitude-adjuster I will think it so anyhow—?


  5. Maria F.
    May 06, 2016 @ 09:13:50

    Great research, here we remained using “llave” for faucet, ex.:

    “Cierra la llave de agua” (Turn the faucet off)

    The other word for faucet in Latin America is “pluma”

    “Cierra la pluma” (turn the faucet off)

    Why was “pluma” adopted as “faucet” in the Americas, perhaps because of this:

    “pluma de agua”-Unidad de medida para aforar las aguas; su equivalencia varía según los distintos países. En España, equivale a un gasto de 0,025 litros por segundo.” It is used only in the Antilles, Columbia, and Panama, according to the DRAE.

    Another aspect of “grifo” is “cabello crespo”, taken from the meaning “grifarse, which means ‘to rise up, rear up, stand up.’, meaning kinky hair. “Crespo” is used widely here for people with such type of hair, but “grifo” has the implication of a black person. Ex.:

    “El tiene el pelo grifo como su padre.” (he has kinky hair like his father [who may have been black])


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 07, 2016 @ 10:46:21

      Llave is the word I’m familiar with, too. I assume people would have used it originally for the part that turns (as a key turns) to control the flow of water, and then more generally for the apparatus as a whole, including the spout that projects.

      The uses you’ve described for pluma as ‘faucet’ and grifo for ‘kinky’ are new to me. Corominas says that grifo for ‘faucet’ arose from the tradition of adorning the ends of water pipes with figures of animal heads so the water would appear to flow out of their mouths. Gargoyles came about in a similar way.


      • Maria F.
        May 07, 2016 @ 11:44:16

        Pluma is very interesting, I still don’t understand myself why it only made it to certain regions and not others.

        “Grifo” is only used here as an adjective for “kinky” hair.


    • Maria F.
      May 07, 2016 @ 12:50:48

      I found a link which is funny but very didactic.

      “Pluma” is a Greater Antilles term for faucet, and is used in P.R., Cuba, Dominican R,. and some parts of Colombia.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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