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

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



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



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



Last time, with heavy doses of nosism, I wrote about nos, which in Latin meant ‘we’ and ‘us,’ and in Spanish means ‘us’ and ‘to us.’ The corresponding Latin adjective was noster ‘our,’ with stem nostr-, which developed into Spanish nuestro. Beginning in the Renaissance, pharmacists sometimes placed the neuter Latin nostrum ‘ours’ on bottles of medicine, as if to say “This is our home remedy.” That’s the origin of nostrum as an English term for ‘a medicine whose ingredients are kept secret,’ and then more generally for ‘any sort of product or scheme that is less than reputable.’ The French cognate of Spanish nuestro is notre, which lost its s by the same process that has led some modern varieties of Spanish to turn nuestro into nuehtro and then nuetro. We recognize French Notre Dame ‘Our Lady’ as the name of a famous Gothic cathedral in Paris and also of a Catholic university in Indiana.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the underlying Indo-European root was *nes-, whose suffixed adjectival form *ns-ero‑ gave rise not only to Latin noster but also to Germanic *unsara‑. With the loss of the -n-, that became Old English ūser. The subsequent loss of the s led to Old English ūre, the ancestor of our our (for those of us who are native English speakers).

©2017 Steven Schwartzman



We begin today’s post with a discussion of the rare English word nosism, which, but for an old prejudice against English and in favor of Latin and Greek, we might otherwise be calling weism. We who have studied Spanish or grew up speaking the language recognize the nos in nosism as the form of the Spanish first person plural pronoun that acts as a direct and indirect object, but in Latin nos functioned as the direct object or the subject of a verb. A Roman emperor or dictator, who we can agree had an overwhelming need for self-aggrandizement, might speak to his subjects with nos, thereby puffing himself up into a plural long before cloning became a biological possibility. Nosism is a name for that imperial or royal we, and more generally for an excessive use of we.

Astute readers will have noticed that we began today’s entry with the word we and repeated it as the subject of several more clauses in the first paragraph. We sometimes call that sort of usage the literary or author’s we, with which we aim to create a bond with our readers. We also note that Latin nos was a short word, one that modern Spanish has felt the need to build up into nosotros, which we can see really means ‘we others’ or ‘the rest of us.’ What we find harder to see until someone points it out to us is that English us, whose Germanic ancestor *uns still had an n in the middle of it, is a cognate of Latin and Spanish nos.

For more on nosism, I (yes, I) call your attention to Ben Zimmer’s “On Words” column in the October 3, 2010, New York Times, which prompted today’s blog entry.

©2016 Steven Schwartzman



A glance at The Superior Person’s Book of Words sent me scurrying to a dictionary to find out what vapulation means—or at most meant, because the word is hardly current now and probably never was. Even as far back as 1828, Noah Webster noted in his dictionary that vapulation was no longer in use, but he nevertheless defined it as ‘the act of beating or whipping.’ The 1913 Webster’s repeated that definition and likewise called the word obsolete, but also noted that it came from the Latin verb vapulare, which a Latin-English dictionary translates as ‘to get a whipping, to be flogged, to be beaten.’ As an example of how this rare word has been used, consider this passage from Derek Hudson’s 1943 book Thomas Barnes of the Times:

According to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, Spanish borrowed Latin vapulare as the almost unchanged vapular, though the variant vapulear is now apparently the usual form; the dictionary gives its first meaning as ‘zarandear de un lado a otro a alguien o algo,’ i.e. ‘to shake or knock someone or something from side to side.’ A second meaning is ‘golpear o dar repetidamente contra alguien o algo,’ i.e. ‘to hit or strike someone or something.’ The verb has the figurative sense ‘to criticize harshly’ (which accords with that of vapulation in Thomas Barnes of the Times). The corresponding Spanish noun vápulo is ‘a whipping, flogging, beating, shaking’; Cervantes used the word twice in Don Quijote.

As for the English verb vapulate, it appeared in the 1806 Dictionary of the Synonymous Words and Technical Terms in the English language. Author James Leslie included it as one of many words meaning ‘to beat.’ Here’s the full list, which I trust will be a pleasure and not a vapulation for you to read: “To pommel, to bang, to sugillate, to tew, to thwack, to trounce, to vanquish, to vapulate, to repercuss, to buffet, to curry, to firk, to fease or feaze, to lamm, to bray, to drub, to baste, to batter, to maul, to nubble, to belabour, to bump, to cane.”

I first investigated vapular/vapulate in 2011. In doing a search now, five years later, I was surprised to find a page on the Internet that raises the question of the difference between beat and vapulate. I’m sure that question comes up a lot.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman



When I bought a new faucet for my kitchen sink some years ago, I couldn’t help noticing that the box it came in was a sort of Rosetta stone, though with cardboard in lieu of the stone that would have made the container impractically heavy and expensive. The three kinds of writing on the box were not ancient Greek and two forms of Egyptian, but the modern languages English, Spanish, and French. For this blog’s audience I’ll forgo the French, but the English text identified the product as a “HighArc Kitchen Faucet” and the Spanish as a “Grifo de Cuello de Cisne.” I leave it to you to decide whether cuello de cisne ‘swan’s neck’ is a more poetic description than high-arc [which I’ve respelled]. I wasn’t familiar with grifo, but by context it had to mean ‘faucet.’ To my surprise, when I looked up the word I found that it’s the same grifo that originally meant and still means ‘griffin,’ which English also spells griffon and gryphon. The Spanish and English versions of the word ultimately trace back to grups, the ancient Greek name for the fabulous creature. As a refresher for you and me, here’s how Noah Webster defined griffon in his 1828 dictionary:

In the natural history of the ancients, an imaginary animal said to be generated between the lion and eagle. It is represented with four legs, wings and a beak, the upper part resembling an eagle, and the lower part a lion. This animal was supposed to watch over mines of gold and hidden treasures, and was consecrated to the sun. The figure of the griffon is seen on ancient medals, and is still borne in coat-armor. It is also an ornament of Greek architecture.

I proceeded to do an online search and turned up many images of griffons. I found that people have extended the use of the word to a type of vulture, which isn’t that much of a stretch, and also to a type of dog, which is quite a stretch. Apparently the curved shape of the mythological griffon’s eagle-like beak was what led Spanish to use grifo metaphorically for ‘a faucet.’ My faucet, with its cuello de cisne, added a different bird to the mix.

While English doesn’t use griffin as a verb and hasn’t made a verb like *griffinize from it, Spanish has used grifo in its original meaning of a mythical creature to create grifarse, which means ‘to rise up, rear up, stand up.’ The DRAE adds two senses of that reflexive verb that have developed in Costa Rica: ‘to get goose bumps; to get high on marijuana.’ It seems that the Costa Ricans have rich imaginations indeed.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

[This is an updated version of a post from 2010.]


And still palpitating

The last post looked at some words derived from Latin palpare, which meant ‘to stroke, touch softly, pat.’ From palpare the Romans themselves created the frequentative palpitare, with meanings that included ‘to move frequently and quickly, to tremble, throb, pant,’ and ultimately ‘to palpitar/palpitate.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave as senses of the modern verb ‘to beat rapidly and more strongly than usual; to throb; to bound with emotion or exertion; to pulsate violently; to flutter.’ In 1828 Noah Webster had given this wonderful definition: ‘To beat gently; to beat, as the heart; to flutter, that is, to move with little throws; as we say, to go pit a pat; applied particularly to a preternatural or excited movement of the heart.’

Ah, to go pit a pat, especially when experiencing a preternatural or excited movement of the heart! Just the stuff of operas, whose Italian lyrics seem preternaturally full of the verb palpitar. For example, in the aria “M’apparì,” or “She appeared to me,” from Flotow’s Martha, we find in the Italian version of the German original:

Il pensier di poter palpitar con lei d’amor,
Può sopir il martir che m’affana e strazia il cor….

The thought of being able to “palpitate” with her in love
Can soften the torture that wracks me and torments my heart….

Standing in contrast to those stilted lyrics are the opening lines of Paul Valéry’s great poem “Le Cimetière marin,” “The Seaside Cemetery”:

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes….

Este techo tranquilo, donde andan [unas] palomas,
Entre los pinos palpita, entre las tumbas….

This tranquil roof, on which pigeons are walking,
Palpitates among the pines, among the tombs….

And in contrast to both of those is the type of pathological palpitación/palpitation that doctors talk about, and that is ‘a rapid and irregular heartbeat’ not caused, except in rare cases, by love and its attendant passions.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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