The other “y”

The Spanish y that everyone knows is the one that means ‘and.’ Actually, everyone knows the other y, too, but almost no one recognizes it as an element in its own right: it’s the y at the end of the hay that means ‘there is, there are.’ The first element, ha, is the third-person-singular present tense of haber ‘to have.’ The y that follows is what linguists call a bound form, meaning that it no longer functions as an independent word. It developed from Latin ibi ‘in that place, there,’ so hay means literally ‘it has there,’ which is semantically akin to English there is. Some of you will recognize hay as the counterpart of the synonymous French il y a (unlike Spanish, French requires the dummy subject ilello/it,’ and the order of the other two words is reversed).

A Latin compound of ibi was ibīdem, which meant ‘in the same place.’ In footnotes and endnotes, writers use ibīdem, usually abbreviated ib. or ibid., to indicate that a statement comes from the same source mentioned in the previous note.

The Indo-European root underlying Latin ibi was *i-, which the American Heritage Dictionary designates a pronominal stem. Another Latin word based on that root was the adverb item, which meant ‘in that same manner, likewise.’ A tradition arose of using item to introduce each new entry in a list: “and likewise this thing, and likewise this other thing, etc.” Eventually each member in a list came to be known as an ítem/item. Colloquial English limits the list to two in calling a pair of romantically involved people “an item.” Where English has turned item into the verb itemize, Spanish has not, preferring to use the unrelated detallar.

Native English words based on the Indo-European root *i- include the archaic yon, the only somewhat more used yonder, and the common compound beyond. The root also appears in native English yes, whose second element comes from the same Indo-European root as Spanish es, so yes originally conveyed the idea ‘that’s how it is, it’s that way.’

Yes, that’s how it is in the world of etymology.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman



Someone who encounters the unfamiliar English adjective trabeate (or trabeated) and looks it up at finds as a first definition ‘not arcuate.’ Hmm. Fortunately the dictionary goes on to explain its explanation: ‘having straight horizontal beams or lintels (rather than arches).’ With that clarification, we recognize the arc in arcuate, but what about the trab in trabeate? That turns out to come from the Latin noun trabs, with genitive trabis, meaning ‘beam, timber.’ Latin trabs gave rise to Old French trave, which English has adopted as an architectural term meaning ‘crossbeam’ or ‘a portion of a construction made with crossbeams.’ Another architectural term is architrave (Spanish arquitrabe), which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘the lowermost part of an entablature in classical architecture, resting directly on top of the columns. Also called epistyle.’

People in Roman times used beams not only as supports but also as obstacles, for example to secure the doors of buildings. Latin trabs evolved to Spanish traba, which has lost the literal and constructive senses and retained the ones pertaining to blocking and constraining. A traba is an ‘obstacle, hindrance, hobble.’ Trabas are ‘shackles.’ The derived verb trabar has meanings that include ‘to hinder, obstruct, bar, fasten, hobble, tie, hold shut,’ and even ‘wedge open.’ More constructively, a trabazón is an ‘assembly, link, joining, connection’; with regard to physical substances it means ‘consistency, coherence.’

If we go back well beyond Latin trabs, we find that the underlying Indo-European root is *treb-, which meant ‘dwelling.’ From that root came native English thorp, which designates ‘a small village.’ Though the word is archaic in its own right, it persists as the final element in many English place names. From thorp‘s Afrikaans cognate South African English has acquired the synonymous dorp. We also recognize the German cognate in place names like Düsseldorf.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman


The word rival, spelled the same in Spanish and English but of course pronounced differently, has an etymology that few people would guess. It comes from the Latin adjective rīvālis, which referred to two people who use the same rīvus, i.e. the same stream. Just goes to show that today’s fights over water rights are nothing new. And just because Latin rīvus meant ‘stream,’ we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that English river comes from the same source. It doesn’t, and therefore neither does the Spanish cognate ribera. It’s just a coincidence that Latin rīpa, ultimately the source of river and ribera, happened to mean ‘river bank.’ From Latin rīpa came the adjective rīpārius ‘having to do with a river bank,’ whose feminine form *rīpāria began to function as a noun in Vulgar Latin. Spanish ribera preserves the original sense of the river bank. In French rivière and English river, however, semantic drift has carried the meaning out into the water.

Coming back to the Latin rīvus that meant ‘stream,’ we’ll note that the derived verb derivar/derive has the literal sense ‘to flow from.’ The underlying Indo-European root *rei-, which meant ‘to flow’ and ‘to run,’ is the source of native English run.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman


Antojo and anteojo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a language in possession of a future will develop in an unpredictable way. Take the Spanish compound antojo, made from ante ‘before, in front of’ and ojo ‘eye’. There was a time when antojo meant ‘telescope,’ a device that you literally put in front of an eye. In the plural, antojos meant ‘binoculars’ or ‘eyeglasses’. To keep conveying those optical senses, Spanish eventually recast the word as anteojo in the singular and anteojos in the plural. The reason for the recasting wasn’t just to make clear that the first element of the compound is ante. No, the reason was to distinguish the optical meanings from others that antojo had unpredictably developed. In Spanish, ‘something in front of your eyes’ became ‘something that catches your attention’ and then ‘something you’d suddenly like to have.’ Two common English translations for antojo are ‘whim’ and ‘craving’. While anyone can have a whim, antojo added as one of its senses ‘the particular kind of craving pregnant women feel for a certain food or combination of foods’. Then antojo went on to add the meaning ‘birthmark’. If that puzzles you, you’re probably not aware of the folk (and faux) belief that birthmarks result from pregnant women’s unfulfilled cravings.

While English speakers no doubt once shared the same folk belief about birthmarks, the English language didn’t share any of the developments just discussed. English doesn’t call a telescope, much less a craving, a *fore-eye or *foreye (though since the 1970s eye candy has made its way into popular parlance). English has, however, acquired the Latin-derived prefix ante- in compounds like anterior, antecedent, and antedate. English also uses ante by itself as a noun to mean ‘money that a player in a card game has to be put forth before being allowed to play or keep playing’.

As for Spanish ojo, it developed from the synonymous Latin oculus, which bears a diminutive ending. The main part of the Latin word goes back to the Indo-European root *okw, which also produced the Old English ēage that has become modern English eye. Architectural English has borrowed Latin oculus to designate ‘a round aperture or window’.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman


Not all that glitters is gold

In a recent comment on my other blog, Jim at How I See It asked about “the relationship of the words oro, ore, oriole, orange, aura, and the gold symbol Au.” Etymologically, it makes sense to take the last first, because chemistry uses the symbol Au as an abbreviation of the Latin noun for ‘gold,’ aurum; that’s the predecessor of Spanish oro, the first word in the list. Oriole is also related. English acquired it from Old French, where it developed from Latin aureolus, a diminutive of aureus, the adjective corresponding to aurum; that makes an oriole ‘a golden [bird].’ Latin aureus is the obvious source of Spanish áureo. It’s the less obvious source of öre, a Swedish unit of currency that’s 1/100 of a krona.

The fact that oriole sounds a lot like Oreo, the familiar cookie, made me wonder if there’s a connection. An article at has this to say:

So where did the name “Oreo” come from? The people at Nabisco aren’t quite sure. Some believe that the cookie’s name was taken from the French word for gold, “or” (the main color on early Oreo packages).

Others claim the name stemmed from the shape of a hill-shaped test version; thus naming the cookie in Greek for mountain, “oreo.”

Still others believe the name is a combination of taking the “re” from “cream” and placing it between the two “o”s in “chocolate” – making “o-re-o.”

And still, others believe that the cookie was named Oreo because it was short and easy to pronounce.

Or, says snarky me, maybe it’s called Oreo because the name comes from explanation 1 or 2 or 3 or 4.

Of the remaining three words in the original query, none are related to each other or to gold. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, ore developed from a cross between “Old English ōra and Old English ār, brass, copper, bronze.” English orange and the Spanish cognate naranja are ultimately of Dravidian origin; you can read the word’s interesting history here. As for aura, it goes back to Greek aurā, which meant ‘breath.’ That’s still a primary sense in Spanish. From it came the extended meaning ‘slight breeze,’ which is a poetic sense in Spanish and used to be a meaning of the word in English as well.

In closing, let me point out the wording of this post’s title, which is logically correct. The commonly heard “all that glitters isn’t gold” logically means that every glittering thing isn’t gold, which is obviously not true. My version bears the indisputable aura of reason.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman



I assure you there’s no connection between Spanish asurar and English assure. When I recently encountered asurar for the first time, my mind leapt to make that connection, even though I knew assure and sure came into English from French, where those words had followed a phonological development Spanish didn’t share. Not even knowing the meaning of asurar when I came across it, I turned to the DRAE, where I learned that it occurs primarily in cooking and agriculture. In cooking, this transitive verb means ‘to burn,’ as when cooking with insufficient water burns the food in a pot on the stove. In agriculture, the ‘burning, parching’ is what the sun does to crops that don’t get enough water.

The DRAE traces asurar back to the Latin noun arsūra, whose first r, later lost in Spanish, gives English speakers a clue to a connection. According to the DRAE, Latin arsūra meant ‘heat, burning.’ I couldn’t verify the existence of such a Latin noun, even in my large Latin dictionary. Hmm. In any case, the connection still holds, because the Latin verb ārdēre, which meant ‘to burn,’ had ārsura as its feminine future participle. Late Latin created the noun ārsiō, with stem ārsiōn-, which led, via Anglo Norman, to the English word arson. The classical Latin verb ārdēre has given Spanish arder ‘to burn,’ from whose old present participle Spanish has the adjective ardiente. Paralleling that, English has ardent, from the Latin present participle. Spanish also has the interesting compound aguardiente, literally ‘burning water,’ but figuratively and actually ‘liquor’ in general and ‘brandy’ in particular.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


Dos mangos por el precio de uno

Spanish has two unrelated words mango. One is the fruit that’s reported to be by far the most widely consumed in the world. The word is identical in English, which allows as a plural not just mangos, as in Spanish, but also mangoes. You couldn’t be blamed for assuming that English borrowed mango directly from Spanish; nevertheless, and surprisingly, the transfer went in the opposite direction. Before imparting mango to Spanish, English had picked it up from Portuguese manga, which referred to the fruit of the tree. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Portuguese acquired the word “from Malayalam māa or a kindred Dravidian source.” Many of the languages of southern India are in the Dravidian family, and we remind ourselves that during the Age of Exploration the Portuguese sailed around Africa to reach India and set up trading stations along the coasts of the subcontinent.

The other Spanish mango means ‘handle’ and is a native word descended from Vulgar Latin *manĭcus, a derivative of the manus that evolved to the synonymous Spanish mano ‘hand.’ Notice the parallel in English handle coming from hand.

For more about Spanish mano, check out the post Mano a mano that appeared here in 2012.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


Another savory etymology

When Jim at How I See It recently requested an article about the origin of savory, I initially thought he meant the herb, rather than the adjective meaning ‘tasty, flavorful.’ As the previous post dealt with that savory, it seems appropriate to look into the other one. When I delved into the origin of the English noun, I found that it began as Latin saturēia and evolved to Old French sarree. Middle English borrowed that as saverey, which has changed hardly at all on its way to modern English savory. Armed with that knowledge, I thought I might not be able to continue with an article for this column because when I looked up the Spanish name for the herb and found it to be ajedrea, a connection to the English word didn’t seem likely. If anything, ajedrea struck me as coming from Arabic (compare ajedrez). I was right about the Arabic origin: the DRAE traces ajedrea to the Hispanic Arabic forms aššaṭríyya and aššiṭríyya. It turns out, though, that the Arabs had originally taken their word from Latin saturēia, so savory and ajedrea really are cognates, even if sound changes in both lines of development have obscured the relationship.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


A savory etymology

Jim at How I See It recently requested a post about the origin of savory. I was unsure which of the two unrelated English words savory he meant, so I asked. He confirmed that he meant the word that designates one of the subsenses of taste. Western science has only recently added savory—known in Japanese as umami—to the subsenses of sweet, bitter, sour, and salty.* As salty is the English adjective formed from salt, so savory is the adjective made from savor. Here are the definitions of savor given in the grand 1913 Webster’s:

1. That property of a thing which affects the organs of taste or smell; taste and odor; flavor; relish; scent; as, the savor of an orange or a rose; an ill savor. “I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.” — Shak[espeare].
2. Hence, specific flavor or quality; characteristic property; distinctive temper, tinge, taint, and the like. “Why is not my life a continual joy, and the savor of heaven perpetually upon my spirit? ” — Baxter.
3. Sense of smell; power to scent, or trace by scent.
4. Pleasure; delight; attractiveness. “She shall no savor have therein but lite.” — Chaucer.

Middle English borrowed savour (which is still the British spelling) from Old French, where it had evolved from the synonymous Latin noun sapor that we recognize as the ancestor of the little-changed Spanish sabor ‘taste, flavor.’ Latin sapor came from the root found also in the verb sapere, which meant ‘to taste’ and which had developed from the Indo-European root *sep- ‘to taste, to perceive.’ Even in Roman times, based on the notion that tasting something is one way to learn about it, the Latin verb sapere had added the meanings ‘to have sense or discernment; to be sensible, discreet, prudent, wise,’ and then more generally ‘to know.’ That, of course, is the primary meaning of the important Spanish verb saber.

Corresponding to savory as an English name for the recently accepted fifth subsense of taste, Spanish says sabroso; both languages also use Japanese umami. Curiously, the DRAE gives a colloquial sense of sabroso as ‘ligerament salado,’ which is to say ‘lightly salted.’ I suspect that that meaning developed before the acceptance in the West of umami as a fifth subsense of taste. English has extended the sense of savory to ‘morally exemplary.’ Similarly, its negative, unsavory, has both literal and moral senses.

* For more on that, and to learn about other candidates for subsenses of taste, you’re welcome to read a Live Science article.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman



Spanish cavilar and English cavil both trace back to Latin cavillārī, whose meanings Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gives as: ‘to practise jeering or mocking; to censure, criticise; to satirize in jest or earnest, to jest, etc.’ That dictionary then adds the extended senses that are the only ones English has borrowed: ‘to reason captiously, to use sophisms, to quibble.’ By contrast, in Spanish cavilar the meaning has turned positive: ‘to think about something intently or profoundly.’ It no longer matches any of the original Latin senses, but we won’t cavil about that turn toward the positive.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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