The common English verb want may not seem to have any relatives in Spanish, but there are some. The first step in finding connections is to realize that the ‘desire’ sense of want isn’t the original one. The original meaning is still alive in the expression to want for that means ‘to lack.’ Lacking something implies being in need, and that need creates a desire for the thing. So it was that the meaning of want expanded to include the ‘desire’ sense that has become the predominant one.

As basic as English want is, the word came into the language from Old Norse vanta. The American Heritage Dictionary traces that back to a suffixed form of the Indo-European root euə-, which meant ‘to leave, abandon,’ and which had derivatives expressing the notions ‘lacking, empty.’ One native English derivative is wane. The Latin derivative vānus, meaning ’empty,’ is the source of Spanish vano and, via Old French, English vain.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 27, 2016 @ 07:42:00

    “Wane” is especially interesting. A waning sunset is one that empties the sky of light.
    And the most vain people sometimes seem empty-headed.

    Of course, there’s a bit of verse that comes to mind:

    “For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
    For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
    For want of a horse the rider was lost,
    For want of a rider the battle was lost,
    For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost,
    And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

    It has an interesting history.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 27, 2016 @ 09:55:18

      That history is interesting. I noticed a reference in your link to the so-called butterfly effect, in which something seemingly insignificant, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, is conjectured to eventually have a huge effect somewhere else.


  2. Maria F.
    Aug 23, 2016 @ 18:46:08

    “Todo fue en vano”, of course, I understand what you say, “vanus” as empty, or lacking.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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