flébil

Spanish flébil is a literary word that means the same as its Latin source flēbilis lamentable, deplorable, mournful,’ which had come from the verb flēre ‘to weep.’ If no English relative comes to mind, it’s in part because the first l dropped out of flēbilis as the adjective evolved into the Old French feble that passed into English and has taken on the modern form feeble. Note that the shift in meaning is another reason English-speaking students of Latin wouldn’t make a connection to an English descendant of flēbilis. Once we accept feeble, we can pretty easily see that it has a doublet, foible. That’s the form that made it into early modern French but is now obsolete in that language. What had started out as an adjective came to be used as a noun to designate ‘the weaker part of a sword blade.’ Semantic expansion led to the modern sense ‘a minor weakness or peculiarity in someone’s character or behavior.’ Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gave this definition: “A particular moral weakness; a failing. When we speak of a man’s foible in the singular, which is also called his weak side, we refer to a predominant failing. We use also the plural, foibles, to denote moral failings or defects. It is wise in every man to know his own foibles.”

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

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allow

The English verb allow is unusual in that it comes from the merging of two verbs in Old French, neither of which meant ‘allow.’ One source was Old French alouer, which developed from Latin allaudāre, a compound of the laudāre that meant ‘to praise’ and that English has borrowed as laud. Latin laudāre evolved naturally in Spanish to loar.

The other contributor to Old French alouer was the Medieval Latin verb allocāre, which meant ‘to assign,’ and which English has acquired as allocate. The Latin verb was based on the noun locus ‘place,’ which served as the root for Spanish lugar.

Putting those two tracks together: somehow the notions of assigning and praising led in the Middle Ages to the sense of permitting that English allow took on and has retained.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

braise

The English verb braise means, in the definition of Merriam-Webster, ‘to cook slowly in fat and a small amount of liquid in a closed pot.’ English acquired the word from the similar French verb braiser, which comes from the noun braise that means ‘glowing ember.’ People have used coal and charcoal as heat sources to cook in various ways, so it’s not clear how braiser came to designate only one method. In any case, Spanish speakers will recognize French braise as the cognate of the synonymous Spanish brasa. The French and Spanish nouns are ultimately of Germanic origin. Beyond that, the American Heritage Dictionary follows the trail back to the prolific Indo-European root bhreu- that meant ‘to boil, bubble, effervesce, burn’ and that had derivatives referring, somewhat paradoxically, to both cooking and brewing.

From brasa Spanish has the brasero that the DRAE defines as a ‘ recipiente de metal, ancho y hondo, ordinariamente circular, con borde, en el cual se echan o se hacen brasas para calentarse.’ English calls that a brazier or brasier.

©2018 Steven Schwartzman

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

trabeate

Someone who encounters the unfamiliar English adjective trabeate (or trabeated) and looks it up at vocabulary.com 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

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

nuestro

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

nosism

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

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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