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


Today being the 11th of December, let me point out that 11 is what mathematicians call a número primo/prime number. The primes are one of three categories into which the positive whole numbers are divided. Most common are the composites, each member of which can be represented by a rectangular array of dots with the same number of dots in each row. For instance, we can represent the composite number 12 as three rows of four dots each:

•    •    •    •
•    •    •    •
•    •    •    •

In contrast, a prime number cannot be represented as a rectangular array. We may try with the prime number 11, but we have one dot too few to fill up a second row

•    •    •    •    •    •
•    •    •    •    •

or we have a surplus dot that spills over into a third row

•    •    •    •    •
•    •    •    •    •

(That last dot can also serve as the period at the end of the previous sentence.) No, the only possible arrangement for 11 is

•    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

In other words, all the dots end up in the first—and only—row. That’s one way of explaining why such a number is called primo/prime, from the Latin word for ‘first,’ primus. Historically, the ancient Greeks had the notion that the primes are first in importance, the fundamental type of whole number. The composites were secondary because they can always be expressed as products of primes (which amounts to saying that we can make rectangular arrays of dots to represent them).

Ironically, as fortunate readers may remember having been taught during their years en la primaria/in primary school, the Greeks placed the very first positive whole number, 1, which was of prime importance to them, in a category of its own. The ancients accorded the number 1 that distinction for being the first [positive whole] number, the generator (by addition) of every other number.

All of this tempts me to proclaim the primacía/primacy of mathematics over everything else, but I would never do such a thing in a column about etymology, where words are our prime consideration.


For more about the English word eleven and its not-at-all-obvious connection to something in Spanish, see last year’s post “The hidden one in once and eleven.”

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

A gem of a word

At its most literal, Spanish yema means a ‘bud or shoot of a plant.’ By analogy, Spanish speakers added in humans the sense ‘fingertip’ and in animals more generally the sense ‘yolk of an egg.’ That last meaning was further abstracted to ‘candy made from the yolk of an egg.’

Spanish yema developed predictably enough from Latin gemma, one sense of which was ‘bud.’ By a different analogy from any that Spanish followed, the Romans extended the notion of ‘bud’ to that of ‘precious stone, jewel,’ a meaning that English borrowed when it transformed gemma into gem.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

More stunning tarantula-related matters

The last post discussed a word used in the Philippines, tarantado, which had been shortened slightly from Spanish atarantado ‘stunned, dazed.’ One question raised but not answered in that post was how atarantado lost its first syllable when it passed into the languages of the Philippines. Linguists have a name for that process: the dropping of one or more sounds as the beginning of a word is called aféresis/aph(a)eresis, a Greek word that means literally ‘a taking away.’ In the case of atarentado, the word stress falls three syllables after the initial a-, which is therefore weakly pronounced; the next step was for Filipinos to drop it altogether. (For a Spanish example of aféresis, consider how ahora gave rise to the shortened ora; for an English example, consider how a raccoon has become for some speakers a coon.)

Yesterday’s post didn’t explain apheresis, but it did explain that Old Italian attarentato, the predecessor of Spanish atarentado, developed from the notion of a person being stunned by the bite of a tarantula, which is a type of large, hairy spider that had previously gotten its name from the southeastern Italian city of Taranto. The inhabitants of that city must have had vivid imaginations, because Taranto also lent its name to the condition called tarantismo/tarantism. A little over a century ago, the aptly named Century Dictionary defined the term this way: ‘A dancing mania; specifically and originally, a dancing mania of the south of Italy in those who had been bitten by a tarantula, or thought they had been, and their imitators.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary had this definition: ‘A nervous affection producing melancholy, stupor, and an uncontrollable desire to dance. It was supposed to be produced by the bite of the tarantula, and considered to be incapable of cure except by protracted dancing to appropriate music.’

The type of rapid dance that Italians from the 1400s through the 1600s believed could cure tarantism came to be known, appropriately, as a tarantella. Spanish and English have borrowed the Italian word, with Spanish spelling it tarantela. In the centuries since then, the connection to tarantulas has largely been lost, and anyone can compose, play, or dance a tarantella.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Some stunning observations

Eve, my asawa ‘esposa/wife,’ speaks Cebuano as her native language. Most readers of this column will never have heard of that language, so I’ll tell you that varieties of it are spoken in the central and southern Philippines, and that it probably has more native speakers than the better known (outside that country) Tagalog (the word is stressed on its middle syllable). Because Spain colonized the Philippines in the 1500s, over the next several centuries the native languages of the archipelago absorbed thousands of Spanish words, much as English borrowed heavily from French in the centuries after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

While reading an online Philippine newspaper some years ago, Eve came across the word tarantado, which she explained means ‘slow to understand, dull-witted, foolish, confused.’ The word was clearly taken from Spanish, but I couldn’t figure out what the original might be or have been (I say “have been” because in some cases Philippine languages preserve words that have fallen out of use in Spanish). At around the same time, by following the tag “etymology,” I happened across a blog that I inferred was written by a Filipino, so I took the opportunity to post a comment asking about tarantado. Mati, the writer of that blog, wrote back after doing some research:

When I asked around, people were certain that it was of Spanish origin but as to which word, they didn’t know. One source said it means “blunder head.” There was one that said it comes from “atarantado,” the past participle of “atarantar”. Now, how the a in “atarantado” was dropped is another thing. I don’t know who can trace it. I don’t know if this is of any worth to you but to us here–while “tarantado” means “stupid, foolish”–we also have another word, “taranta.” It means “panic, confusion.” I believe it has a stronger connection to the original meaning of “atarantar,” to daze.

The reason I hadn’t connected tarantado to atarantado, which seems such an obvious link, is simple: Spanish atarantado was as new a word to me as Cebuano tarantado. The next step was obviously to investigate the Spanish word. According to Guido Gómez de Silva, atarantado probably came from Old Italian attarentato, which he glossed as ‘aturdido; epiléptico,’ from the notion ‘aturdido por la picadura de una tarántula,’ which is to say ‘stunned by the bite of a tarantula.’ Attarentato would have been derived from taranta, a southern Italian form of tarantola, the standard Italian word for tarántula/tarantula (which is the Medieval Latin version of the Italian word). Italian tarantola had come from Taranto, the name of a city in southeastern Italy that was apparently home to its share of the large, hairy spiders.

Corresponding to the past participle atarantado, Spanish has all the other forms of the verb atarantar, whose meanings are ‘to daze, stun, dumbfound.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The strange (because of its semantics) Spanish verb chapuzar means, in the definition of the DRAE, ‘Meter a alguien de cabeza en el agua,’ which is to say ‘To put someone head-down into the water.’ Definitely not helpful to breathing, right? Why a language needs a verb like that isn’t obvious, nor, due to phonetic changes, is it obvious where the verb came from. The modern form of the word goes back to the end of the 1500s, but in the 1200s the verb was zapuzar and before that sopozar, in which we can finally begin to recognize the elements of the compound. The so- developed from Latin sub ‘under,’ and the second element is the same as in pozo ‘a well,’ so the notion was ‘[to put someone] under [the water in] a well.’

And what about the ‘head first’ part of the modern meaning? Joan Corominas gives the answer to that when he explains the change in the second vowel that took place on the way from sopozar to zapuzar. It seems there was influence from the similar-sounding and -meaning verb capuzar that had arisen from Latin caput ‘head.’ In essence, the two verbs merged—dare we say got submerged?—and chapuzar was the eventual result.

Although probably no connection to English comes to mind (other than the many words with sub- as a prefix), there is one. Spanish pozo developed from Latin puteus ‘a water well,’ which ultimately surfaced in the Old English borrowing pytt, the source of the modern noun pit whose fundamental meaning is ‘a cavity in the ground.’ That’s a different word from the pit that’s ‘the kernel in a fruit,’ but the same pit that as a verb means ‘to set in opposition,’ as when one candidate for political office is pitted against another. The semantic connection is via the type of pit that people have traditionally made in the ground for the purpose of staging combats, as for instance roosters in a cockpit. By another transference, the fact that a cockpit is a small, enclosed space led to the now-primary sense of the word: ‘the compartment in which the pilot of an airplane sits.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Previous Older Entries

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
%d bloggers like this: