I recently came across the past participle of a Spanish verb I didn’t recognize, agrietar. When I looked it up in the DRAE I found it defined as ‘Abrir grietas o hendiduras,’ which is a semi-circular definition, with the noun grieta obviously based on the same root as agrietar. As hendidura is ‘a crack, a break, agrietar means ‘to crack, to break,’ and the noun grieta is ‘a crack, fissure, break.’ Delving into the etymology, I found that grieta had changed slightly from Old Spanish crieta, which had developed from Vulgar Latin *crepta, a syncopated version of Latin crepita, the feminine past participle of crepāre, ‘to burst, crack.’

From the past participle of crepāre Latin created the frequentative form crepitāre, whose meanings were ‘to rattle, creak, crackle, clatter, rustle, rumble, chatter, murmur.’ French borrowed that Latin verb as crépiter, and then Spanish borrowed the French verb as crepitar, with the meanings ‘to crackle, sizzle,’ particularly with respect to fire.

Continuing our story of past participles, Latin had attached as a prefix to crepitus to create the adjective dēcrepitus ‘worn out, feeble,’ which English has borrowed as decrepit. Spanish seems to lack that adjective, but has the verb decrepitar that means, with respect to salt, ‘to crackle when put over a fire.’ Another translation is ‘to calcine salt until it has ceased to crackle in the fire.’ In that sense English likewise has the technical verb decrepitate.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Oct 14, 2016 @ 07:21:13

    I don’t remember “syncopate” being used in reference to language, although you may have mentioned it and I missed it.. I’ve always thought of it in terms of music, but the definition I found — “shorten (a word) by dropping sounds or letters in the middle” — fits exactly.

    It’s fun to realize that the word I sometimes use to describe feeling decrepit is ‘creaky,’ as in ‘creaky old bones.’ It’s not only descriptive, it’s etymologically sound!

    Now I’m wondering about ‘crepitude.’ It’s a word I’ve heard used, but after reading this, I’m not sure it’s a word. What does fit is ‘crepitate.’ I learned that one when my mother broke her ankle in two places, and the nice doctor used the word while describing the bone-on-bone action that was taking place.


  2. Yong
    Oct 14, 2016 @ 08:57:55

    “crepitude” doesn’t seem to be a word. If you look it up on Google, it suggests “decrepitude” instead.

    Yes, “syncopate” is a word. For more, see


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 14, 2016 @ 09:31:44

      You’re right that crepitude isn’t an English word. My large Latin dictionary lacks what would have been the Latin original of such a noun.

      The previous commenter knew syncopate from its use in music but not in its linguistic sense.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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