entender

Anyone who has studied French and Spanish soon comes to learn that entendre and entender are faux amis (amigos falsos/false friends). The two verbs are etymologically the same, yet the primary French sense is ‘to hear’ while the primary Spanish sense is ‘to understand.’ Let’s go back to Latin to see how the words developed. The main element was Latin tendere, the source of Spanish tender and English tend. Also from that root, by the way, is tienda/tent, in which some sort of material is stretched out over a rigid frame. That makes sense, you see, because Latin tendere had as its basic meanings ‘to stretch, stretch out, distend, extend.’ Notice that those last two English definitions likewise come from compounds of tendere.

Yet another Latin compound was intendere, where the prefix in meant not its usual ‘in’ but rather ‘to’ or towards.’ Definitions of intendere in Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary include ‘to stretch out, stretch forth, extend; to strain towards; to turn towards, direct towards.’ In particular, the phrase intendere animum meant ‘to direct one’s thoughts or attention to.’ Often the purpose of directing one’s thoughts or attention to something is to understand it, and so Spanish entender took on the meaning ‘to understand.’ French entendre also once had the sense ‘to understand,’ but eventually a particular way of directing one’s attention came to dominate the verb’s meaning, namely to pay attention by listening. That semantic drift was aided by the fact that French ouïr, the cognate of Spanish oír ‘to hear,’ gradually fell out of use, and entendre filled the gap.

Even so, in some French expressions the verb entendre retains the sense ‘understand.’ For example, a malentendu is ‘a misunderstanding.’ Joan Corominas points out that in the 1800s Spanish copied malentendido from the French noun, and he notes that the word was originally looked down on as a Gallicism. English did its own related borrowing from French with double entendre, which is ‘a phrase that can be understood in two ways, one of them often being risqué.’

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 17, 2017 @ 21:25:25

    Two more words came to mind: “tension” (a feeling of being stretched emotionally, or perhaps something mechanical, like a tension spring) and “tendency” (a stretching out of sorts).

    My more traditionally Catholic friends will speak of “making an intention” in prayer. I still don’t fully understand what they mean by that, but I did notice that making intentions seems to be quite the thing now, with everyone from Slate to the Huffington Post writing about them.

    Here’s an amusing Spanish-English true story for you, from Kayti Rasmussen’s blog. She writes: “Today we sometimes sprinkle our conversation with words from another culture. Our son-in-law instructed the Mexican gardener to remove some moss growing in his flower bed by saying “No moss,” which the gardener rightfully heard as “No More”, and took out the entire bed.”

    Every time I read that, I laugh.

    Reply

    • shoreacres
      Apr 17, 2017 @ 21:27:38

      Ah — I just found a reasonable answer. I’d read past “the phrase intendere animum meant ‘to direct one’s thoughts or attention to.’”

      Reply

      • Steve Schwartzman
        Apr 18, 2017 @ 08:00:22

        You’re right to think about tense and tension, which come from tensus, the past participle of tendere. We also have intense. (We should have extense as well but extended and extensive have put it out of business.) And where would people in the news media be if they didn’t make a pretense of understanding the intentions of the people they cover?

        That’s a funny anecdote you cited from Katyi. It’s even more plausible now than it would once have been because for an increasing majority of American speakers the vowel traditionally found in moss and caught has shifted to the vowel in ah. For those people, caught gets pronounced the same as cot, hawk the same as hock, and moss the same as Spanish más.

        Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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