English and Spanish have both found a home for the French word atelier, which means ‘an artist’s or craftsman’s studio,’ but Spanish outdid English by also creating from atelier the doublet taller, whose meanings have expanded to include ‘workshop, garage, repair shop’ and even ‘seminar.’

So where did French atelier come from? The Old French form had been astelier, and the meaning back then was ‘a carpenter’s shop.’ A carpenter works in wood, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that astelier had been formed from the Old French astele that meant ‘splinter’: a carpenter was ‘a splinterer.’ At this point, we recognize Old French astele as the cognate of the synonymous Spanish astilla. The Old Spanish form had been astiella, which developed from Late Latin astella, a reworking of the Latin astula that also meant ‘a splinter.’

But wait: Spanish has not only the doublets atelier and taller, but also from Old French astelier the triplet astillero, which is ‘a shipyard.’ Until the mid-1800s, of course, all ships were made of wood, and shipbuilders were carpenters.

Corresponding to the Spanish proverb “Tal palo, tal astilla,” which conveys the idea that a splinter is like the wood it came from, English speaks of “a chip off the old block,” with the block standing in for a father and the chip being his son.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman



4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Sep 27, 2018 @ 20:48:40

    I love this: especially the way the shipyard came to be included. With today’s divisions of labor and changes in the nature of shipyards generally, the link between shipbuilding and carpentry isn’t quite so close, but in every shipyard I know the carpenters have their own space, which is very much a craftsman’s studio.

    The phrase “a chip off the old block” is familiar, of course. It occurs to me that I’ve never heard a mother/daughter version. “Like mother, like daughter” is the closest I can think of, although there may be sayings I don’t know.

    I did witness a humorous exchange in the dairy section at HEB tonight. A boy I’d guess to be about 7 or 8 was tugging on his mother’s arm, trying to get her attention. When he finally did, he said, “Look at that Spanish milk!” She laughed right away, but it took me a second. The cartons he was pointing to said, “Soy Milk.”


  2. Maria
    Oct 03, 2018 @ 10:53:32

    “De tal palo, tal astilla,” is one of my favorite sayings. Mostly what they use in P.R. is ‘taller’. It now encompasses more activities such as seminars or classes. When used that way it implies that the classes involves a ‘hands-on’ learning experience, similar to that of ‘workshop’ in English.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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