For an English-speaking student learning Spanish, arena is a so-called false friend, a word that looks the same or similar in another language but which means something different. The large Webster’s of 1913 gave the first definition of arena as one pertaining to ancient Rome: ‘The area in the central part of an amphitheater, in which the gladiators fought and other shows were exhibited; — so called because it was covered with sand.’ And of course ‘sand’ is the sense that arena has for a Spanish speaker, and that the identical Latin original had. Interestingly, the third definition in Webster’s was a medical one: ‘”Sand” or “gravel” in the kidneys.’ While it’s not clear that that usage has continued, modern medicine does deal with something called an arenavirus. Here’s an extended definition: ‘One of a family of viruses called Arenaviridae whose members are generally associated with diseases transmitted by rodents to humans. Each arenavirus is usually associated with a particular rodent host species in which it is maintained. Arenavirus infections are relatively common in humans in some areas of the world and can cause severe illnesses. The virus particles are spherical and have an average diameter of 110-130 nanometers. All are enveloped in a lipid (fat) membrane. Viewed in cross-section they show grainy particles that are ribosomes acquired from their host cells. It is this characteristic that gave them their name, derived from the Latin “arena,” which means “sandy.”‘ Well, not quite: the writer confused the adjective sandy for the noun sand. Just goes to show that experts in the medical arena aren’t always experts in the language arena.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman

18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Mar 10, 2019 @ 08:16:11

    Now I’m wondering: will the new, “world-class” arena that UT’s building to replace the Erwin Center have a sand floor? And is beach volleyball the only Olympic sport that’s actually played in an arena?

    Even without a sand floor, I suspect the new UT arena will work out just fine, since I read that “Austin-based Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey will act as the “Minister of Culture” at the venue.” (Now, let me get my tongue out of my cheek.)


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 10, 2019 @ 09:18:10

      I remember when the Irwin Center was built. A long time ago I saw Bob Dylan there. I had no idea an new arena was being built to replace it.

      In these comments you’ve revealed yourself to be quite cheeky.


  2. Maria
    Mar 12, 2019 @ 22:11:43

    It’s funny how you dissected that medical article Steve.

    Here’s another sense of the word, for better or worse:

    Arena: a field of conflict, activity or endeavor: ‘the arena of politics’- (


  3. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Mar 15, 2019 @ 12:35:11

    Very interesting trivia; it’s helpful when the dots are easy to connect y take us wayyyy back to Roman times!

    I would enjoy thumbing through that dictionary, printed in the year my father was born!


  4. Trackback: Amigos lingüísticos en la red (XI) | morforetem

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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