escudriñar

The Spanish verb escudriñar means ‘to examine carefully.’ Based on that definition and the sound of escudriñar, an English speaker can probably figure out that the related English word is scrutinize. The Spanish and English verbs are based on the Latin noun scrūtinium, which meant ‘a search, inquiry, investigation.’ That noun had been created from the verb scrūtārī ‘to search, examine.’ It in turn had been based on the noun scrūta, which surprisingly meant ‘old or broken stuff, trash.’ In ancient times, poor people picked through trash, just as poor people still do today, looking for usable things. The trash is long gone, etymologically speaking, and only the notion of looking carefully has survived in escudriñar/scrutinize. And speaking of surviving, notice that the original order of the Latin consonants persists in English scrutinize, while Spanish escudriñar shows a metathesis of the r.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Descendants of Latin virga

The Latin noun virga meant, as defined in Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, ‘a slender green branch, a twig, sprout, switch, rod.’ From the Latin word came Spanish verga, which is little changed in form and which retains the already mentioned meanings of the Latin word. The Romans metaphorically applied virga to ‘a streak, stripe in the heavens; a water-gall.’ I’d not heard of a water-gall, but it apparently means the same thing that virga does in the use that modern climatologists have put it to, and that the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘wisps of precipitation streaming from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground.’

A Latin Dictionary is a work of the Victorian period, so its authors were squeamish about glossing another sense the Romans had transferred to virga; Lewis and Short defined that meaning of the Latin noun by using more Latin: ‘Genitalium, = membrum virile.’ Not only has Spanish retained the anatomical sense in verga, but the DRAE even lists it first among the meanings it gives. Through the word’s French cognate, English has acquired verge, whose meanings include: ‘a rod, wand, or staff carried as an emblem of authority or office; the spindle of a balance wheel in a clock or watch, especially such a spindle in a clock with vertical escapement; the male organ of copulation in certain mollusks.’ In case you’re wondering whether this is the same verge that English uses in the expression on the verge of, it is; the original ‘slender rod’ was taken metaphorically as a dividing line between one condition and another.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Rancho

I drove past a lot of ranches on a recent trip that took me as far north as Wyoming. With that in mind, here’s an updated version of a post from four years ago.

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Allá en el rancho grande,
allá donde vivía,
había una rancherita
que alegre me decía,
que alegre me decía:
“Te voy a hacer tus calzones
como los que usan los rancheros.
Los comienzo de lana
y los acabo de cuero.”

(Out there on the big ranch,
out there where I was living,
there was a little rancher gal
who used to say to me cheerfully,
who used to say to me cheerfully:
“I’m going to turn your shorts [or pants]
into the kind that the rancher men wear.
I’ll start them out in wool
and finish them up in leather.”)

El rancho, los rancheros, la rancherita: we can picture the romantic scene described in that popular song, and what could be more quintessentially Spanish or Mexican? But there’s a surprise in store allá en el rancho: in terms of word origins, rancho should conjure up images of quiche rather than quesadillas, of pâté and not paella, of tartelettes rather than tortillas or tacos. Mais oui, Spanish rancho comes from French! And, à vrai dire, to tell the truth, the word actually traces even farther back, to Germanic. From Frankish, a Germanic language that gave France its name, Old French had borrowed ranc, a noun that meant ‘line, row.’ Old French ranc (which passed into English to join its native relative ring by becoming rank) led to the modern French verb ranger, whose meaning is clear from the borrowed English verb arrange. The French reflexive verb se ranger took on the sense, with respect to troops, ‘to arrange themselves on a campground’ and more generally ‘to set up camp.’ Spanish carried that reflexive French verb over as ranchearse, and the derived noun rancho came to mean ‘an encampment.’ Spanish speakers in the New World eventually extended the meaning to what we now think of as a rancho/ranch. English originally used the Spanish form rancho, but by the early part of the 20th century the Anglicized ranch won out.

We began with the first part of a song in Spanish, so let’s give equal time to English and conclude with the refrain of another song:

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Note that English range, borrowed from French, is etymologically the same as Spanish rancho, though the meanings of the two words, like the buffalo that once inhabited the plains, have roamed.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

buckaroo

A friend of mine once wrote in an e-mail: “Will do, buckaroo.” Spanish speakers may recognize that the colloquial buckaroo, which entered English in the 1800s, is just an Anglicized version of vaquero ‘cowboy,’ with the b of buckaroo doing a good job in representing the Spanish pronunciation of v. Although Spanish vaquero (from vaca) and English cowboy both refer to the cattle that the workers herded, the men actually rode horses. That may explain the reshaping of the first part of vaquero to English buck, which is what an unbroken horse often does when a cowboy first tries to ride it. We also note that the middle-syllable stress of the Spanish original has been bucked onto the last syllable of the English version.

The use of buck as a verb, which comes from the noun buck that means ‘a male animal,’ also goes back to the cowboy days of the 1800s. Writing to you from Texas, I can’t resist quoting what Farmer and Henley said about that usage in their famous Slang and Its Analogues, whose seven volumes gradually got published from 1890 to 1904:

“This term, as applied to horses, consists in plunging forward and throwing the head to the ground in an effort to unseat the rider—a motion of which probably no domesticated beast is capable, aside from the Texan miserable and treacherous species of horse. A raw hand thus relates his experience:—‘When I was told how hard he could buck, I only laughed, my impression being that no pony standing on four legs could throw me off. I mounted my new horse, and waving my brand new hat about my head, galloped away in a dignified style. Suddenly the horse stopped. His ears went back, and his hind legs went between his front. The motion was a curious one. But I did not fall. Realizing that the man on his back could ride a little bit, the pony got right down to business. My stomach seemed to fly up into my mouth and millions of stars floated about my head. I am not prepared to state what kind of hold the pony got on me, but I went sprawling on the ground, my nose making an irrigating ditch. It was all done not more than one hundred yards from where my girl was standing. I stuck on well, however, as the saddle, blanket, gun and bridle came off with me. The wild yell that greeted my exploit nearly drove me mad. While I spit the dirt and curses out of my mouth, I thought that if I had that pony back I’d break him in or break my head. It ran out on the prairie and joined the Government herd. When an old-timer tried to fix things for me in front of my girl by saying, “It’s no disgrace, pardner, that horse can buck off a porous plaster,” I thanked him from the bottom of my heart.’”

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

ladrar

Ladrar, the Spanish word meaning ‘to bark,’ is little changed from the synonymous Latin verb lātrāre. While no ordinary English relative comes to mind, the adjective latrant*, derived from the present participle of the Latin verb, exists. It means, not surprisingly, ‘barking, snarling,’ although the Merriam-Webster Dictionary marks the word archaic, and the Collins English Dictionary literary. Back in 1845, when the word might have had a little more life in it than it does now, the Encyclopædia Metropolitana gave two examples from poetry:

Thy care be first the various gifts to trace,
The minds and genius of the latrant race.
—Tickell, “On Hunting”

Whose latrant stomachs oft protest
The deep-laid plans their dreams suggest.
— Green, “The Spleen”

When it comes to things zoological, we note that the scientific name of the coyote is Canis latrans, even if related species could equally well be described as ‘barking.’

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* The first syllable rhymes with that of matron.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Up

Something can be called high only with respect to something else that’s lower. Something can be called big only with respect to something else that’s smaller. Something can be called good only with respect to something else that’s worse. Those are examples of what I’ve come to call the Duality Principle. The little English word up exemplifies that principle, as etymology makes clear. Up has cognates in the Germanic languages (for example Norwegian opp, Icelandic upp, Danish op, German auf). Going back a good deal further, we find that the Indo-European original was *upo, which could mean—are you ready for a hefty dose of the Duality Principle?—not only ‘under’ and its opposite ‘over,’ but even ‘up from under.’

A variant form of the Indo-European root with an initial s- gave rise to Latin sub, which largely inherited the ‘under’ sense of its ancestor, as we see in many compounds taken from Latin. A few examples are submarino/submarine, subterráneo/subterranean, and sumergir/submerge. Nevertheless, in the familiar Spanish compound subir, which is sub+ir, the sense is ‘to go up [from under].’ If you’d like to read more about subir, you can check out a post from the first year of this blog.

Only an advanced foreign student of Spanish is likely to encounter the inherited (as opposed to borrowed) descendant of Latin sub, which is so. It’s no longer a living word but still appears in set phrases like so pena de ‘under pain of, at the risk of,’ and so color de and so pretexto de, both of which mean ‘on the pretext of.’

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

scient

One morning not long ago I was watching the news on television when all of a sudden—I don’t know why—I wondered whether English had ever used the adjective scient. If the noun convenience corresponds to the adjective convenient, and reliance to reliant, why not science to scient? When I did a search at the dictionary site onelook.com I found that English had indeed once accepted scient as an adjective meaning ‘knowing, skillful.’ The word was formed from Latin scient-, the stem of the present participle of the verb scīre that meant ‘to know.’ From scient- also came the abstract Latin noun scientia, whose meanings were ‘a knowing or being skilled in any thing; knowledge; skill, expertness,’ and ultimately ‘science,’ which Spanish has respelled ciencia. Science as we know it today didn’t exist in ancient times, so modern European languages had to create a new corresponding adjective. For Spanish and English that took the respective forms científico and scientific, with the Spanish adjective doubling as a noun corresponding to English scientist.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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

clangor

The not-so-common word clangor exists in Spanish and English because both languages borrowed it directly from Latin. The similarly uncommon Latin noun had been based on the stem of the verb clangere, which the Romans had created to imitate the action it represented, namely ‘to clang, to sound.’

Spanish uses clangor for ‘the sound of a trumpet or bugle,’ while the English clangor means ‘a clanging; a racket, a din.’ Notice that the first part of the English definition is circular because it assumes you know what the related clang means. Short, consonant-heavy words like that are usually native English, but in this case English appears to have formed clang from Latin clangere. As far as I can tell, Spanish doesn’t have a verb that’s a descendant of clangere but if it ever creates one we’ll certainly raise a clangor to mark the event.

Speaking of events, it occurred to me that the city of Bangor, Maine, might well have held some sort of festival called The Clangor in Bangor. An Internet search failed to turn anything up, however, so the folks on the Bangor City Council might want to get cracking.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

lore

snowy-egret-9178

Click the photograph for more information about this bird.

Two unrelated English words have ended up as lore. The more common one, which means ‘a traditional body of knowledge,’ appears in the second line of Poe’s famous poem “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

The other lore is a biological term. It refers to something you probably didn’t know there was a word for: ‘the region between a bird’s eye and its bill.’ That region is typically strap-shaped (see photo above), and in fact lore was borrowed from the Latin noun lōrum that meant ‘strap, thong.’ Botanical Spanish uses the adjective lorado to mean ‘strap-shaped,’ but ornithological Spanish doesn’t appear to have borrowed the noun *loro (perhaps because it would get confused with the loro that means ‘parrot’).
From the root of lōrum the Romans seem to have created Latin lōrīca, which designated a leather cuirass, a corselet of thongs.’ English uses that word as a historical term, and by analogy biologists have extended the definition of lorica to a ‘protective external shell or case, as of a rotifer or any of certain other microscopic organisms.’
© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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