I remember that when I lived in Honduras a long time ago I had a hard time making sense of the Spanish word pauta. Looking now at Span¡shD!ct, I see that English translations include ‘norm, standard, guideline, pattern, model, example.’ In medicine, a pauta is ‘a schedule for dosing or treatment.’ In addition to those non-tangible senses, the noun can also mean ‘a line on a piece of paper’ and ‘the set of lines used in musical notation,’ which is to say ‘a staff.’

I think one reason pauta seemed troublesome to me half a century ago is that there’s no obvious English cognate to tie it to. Etymology shows that one exists, and to understand it we have to go back to the Latin noun pactum, which meant what our borrowed pacto/pact still means. According to Joan Corominas, in the Middle Ages pacta, the plural of pactum, took on the senses ‘legal text, law.’ Eventually, as so often happened, that neuter plural ending in -a got taken for a feminine singular, and by the early 1600s the resulting Spanish pauta meant ‘dispositivo que ayuda a dar dirección horizontal a los renglones de un escrito,’ which is to say ‘a device to keep lines of writing horizontal [i.e. straight and parallel].’ From the Medieval Latin meaning came the more-abstract modern Spanish senses ‘norm, standard, guideline, pattern, model, example.’ The 17th-century Spanish meaning of pauta has persisted in the senses ‘line on a piece of paper’ and ‘staff.’

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jun 16, 2018 @ 21:26:24

    After remembering that stave is the British equivalent to staff in musical notation, I began thinking about boat building, where staves often are used to form various parts of a boat. There are barrel staves, too, which are vertical rather than horizontal, but which also are straight and parallel, like the lines of a musical staff.

    While I was reading about staves, I came across something I’d never noticed: that Dickens uses staves instead of chapters as headings in A Christmas Carol. There’s a bit more about that here.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 17, 2018 @ 11:45:15

      I thought maybe at some point over the years of this blog I’d discussed staff and stave. In checking just now, I found I hadn’t, at least not here. Those words are included in my unfinished Words in Disguise, which includes all the English doublets, triplets, etc., I’ve found. The article you linked to does a good job with staff and stave.

      Like you, I never noticed that Dickens divided A Christmas Carol into staves. Somehow I managed to stave off that knowledge until now.


  2. Maria
    Jun 21, 2018 @ 23:27:26

    I can see why it deviated from the more general ‘pacta’ in meaning and sound. Apparently it has an Asturian-Catalan-Portuguese origin. Here’s a really interesting link:

    A ‘guideline’ seems to be the more common meaning. Whenever I heard that someone was putting a ‘pauta’, it meant that there was a guideline or rules to follow about some course of action.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 22, 2018 @ 04:08:03

      For someone who didn’t grow up with the word, I find it helpful that Span¡shD!ct gives lots of examples showing how pauta is used.


      • Maria
        Jun 22, 2018 @ 08:10:33

        That’s a great link. I bookmarked it, and yes it shows you how to use it contextually.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Jun 22, 2018 @ 08:32:27

          After taking a second look, I have to wonder whether all the examples are authentic, or whether there’s been some influence from English. I say so because I noticed in the first example that apropriado should be apropiado, without a second r. How inappropriate.


      • Maria
        Jun 22, 2018 @ 08:30:42

        One can always just say, “estas son las reglas”, instead of “pautas”. However, the word has been in use for centuries, and it has that mixture of Asturian-Catalan-Portuguese. One day I will read more about Asturian-Catalan influences. The Portuguese is clear, but the other has idiomatic nuances, if that’s even the correct way to put it.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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