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

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Chapuzar

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

More day to dawn

Readers may recognize the title of today’s post from the poetic ending of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” What dawns in this column is more etymology: in particular, I’d like to continue with the previous post by looking at a few more words that begin with eo-, from Greek eos ‘dawn,’ a descendant of the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine.’ As noted last time, scientists have coined words that use eo- in the sense ‘very early, primitive.’

A raptor is ‘a person or animal that carries off another,’ so an eoraptor, which has been translated as ‘dawn plunderer,’ is the name given to ‘a certain type of very early dinosaur that lived about 230 million years ago, toward the end of the Triassic Period.’ Wikipedia articles describing eoraptor exist in Spanish and English.

Based on Greek lithos ‘stone,’ an eolito/eolith is ‘a stone from the dawn of time.’ Scholars who specialize in ancient history began using the term in the late 1800s to designate what they believed to be very crude artifacts made by early humans. A more recent view, however, is that such stone pieces were formed by natural rather than human processes. Wikipedia articles describing eoliths exist in Spanish and English.

In contrast to those two words, the scientific term eosina/eosin was given its name based on the colors of the sky at dawn. As the English-language Wikipedia article notes: “Eosin is a fluorescent red dye resulting from the action of bromine on fluorescein. It can be used to stain cytoplasm, collagen and muscle fibers for examination under the microscope. Structures that stain readily with eosin are termed eosinophilic.” There is also a Spanish-language Wikipedia article about eosina, and the Spanish equivalent of eosinophilic is eosinófilo.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

eos

The Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine’ gave rise not only to English east and Easter and Latin aurora, but also to Greek eos ‘dawn.’ From that comes the eo- that appears as a first element in several learned coinages, where it means ‘dawn’ in the figurative sense of ‘earliest, most primitive.’ One such coinage is eohippus, or ‘dawn horse,’ a name given to the earliest distinguishable ancestor of the modern horse. The eohippus (for which Spanish has the additional form eohipo) was originally the size of a dog; it developed in the Americas and ultimately died out there, but not before its larger descendants had colonized other continents, from which they were reintroduced into the Americas beginning at the end of the 1400s.

Another eo- word, one whose second element comes from Greek kainos ‘recent,’ is Eoceno/Eocene, which the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica identified this way: “in geology, the name suggested by Sir C. Lyell in 1833 for the lower subdivision of the rocks of the Tertiary Era. The term was intended to convey the idea that this was the period which saw the dawn of the recent or existing forms of life, because it was estimated that among the fossils of this period only 31% (roughly a third) of the species are still living. Since Lyell’s time much has been learned about the fauna and flora of the period, and many palaeontologists doubt if any of the Eocene species are still extant, unless it be some of the lowest forms of life. Nevertheless the name is a convenient one and is in general use. The Eocene as originally defined, however, was not long left intact, for E. Beyrich in 1854 proposed the term ‘Oligocene’ for the upper portion, and later, in 1874, K. Schimper suggested ‘Paleocene’ as a separate appellation for the lower portion. The Oligocene division has been generally accepted as a distinct period, but ‘Paleocene’ is not so widely used.”

Today’s dictionaries show Eoceno/Eocene referring to ‘the second epoch of the Tertiary Period.’ (It’s as if scientists instituted something akin to a permanent Daylight Saving Time for the Eocene, bumping it up one level.)

Users of Canon single-lens reflex (SLR) digital cameras may wonder if EOS, the designation for those models, was taken from Greek eos, but the name arose as an English-language acronym for ‘Electro-Optical System.’ As a recent afterthought, however, Canon took advantage of the Greek word’s meaning and reinterpreted EOS as ‘Goddess of the Dawn’ in its online Canon Camera Museum.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Several unexpected answers

The etymology of the English word answer answers several questions about related words in English and Spanish. Answer, with its now-silent w, is descended from Old English andswaru, whose d is not only no longer pronounced but also not even retained in the current spelling. The swaru in the old form of the compound, which has become modern English swear, goes back to the Indo-European root *swer- ‘to talk, speak.’ The first element in Old English andswaru traces back to Indo-European *ant-, which meant literally ‘front, forehead,’ but which led to the notion of confronting something, which is to say turning against it. We see that sense in the Greek descendant anti, which Spanish and English (and other languages) now use as a prefix in so many words. To answer, then, is literally ‘to speak back,’ originally as a rebuttal, but then more generally ‘to respond [to an assertion or question].’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

volley

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered….
—Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade

 

The 1913 Webster’s offered these definitions of the English word volley as a noun:
A flight of missiles, as arrows, bullets, or the like; the simultaneous discharge of a number of small arms.
A burst or emission of many things at once; as, a volley of words.
(Tennis) A return of the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) A sending of the ball full to the top of the wicket.

 

Used as a verb, the way Tennyson did, volley means:

To be thrown out, or discharged, at once; to be discharged in a volley, or as if in a volley.

(Tennis) To return the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) To send the ball full to the top of the wicket.

Although that dictionary mentioned tennis and cricket, it omitted volleyball, a game that had come into being in 1895 and apparently still wasn’t well-known in 1913.

 

English borrowed volley from French volée, a feminine past participle used as a noun. The infinitive of the verb was voler ‘to fly,’ from the Latin volāre that had also given rise to Spanish volar and Italian volare (which people of a certain age remember from the hit song of 1958). We note that Spanish has borrowed English volleyball directly as voleibol and also less directly (and never, in my experience) as balonvolea.

 

Where volley is an uncommon verb in English, Spanish volar ‘to fly’ is quite common. It has produced various derivatives, a few of which are:

 

vuelo ‘flight’ (also volada, the cognate of French volée);
voladizo ‘projecting’ (in architecture);
volador ‘flying’ (and as a noun ‘flying fish’ and ‘a type of rocket’);
volante, whose various meanings are listed here.
volear ‘to volley’ (in sports).

 

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Spanish summer is etymologically out of whack

The previous post about primavera ‘spring’ discussed the word’s development as a feminine version of Late Latin primo vero ‘in the first part of the spring.’ The original Latin ver ‘spring’ must have extended into what we now call ‘summer,’ a fact that further justifies the felt need to distinguish the first part of that extended period from the latter part. For those later and hotter months, Vulgar Latin began to use the phrase veranum tempus, where tempus meant ‘time, season,’ and veranum was the adjective corresponding to ver ‘spring.’ Eventually, as happens often enough, the adjective alone came to carry the full semantic weight of the original phrase, with the result that the Spanish verano. came to be a word for ‘summer,’ or at least a part of it at first. In Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española, Guido Gómes de Silva explains: “…en español, hasta el siglo XVI, la palabra primavera denotaba el principio de la primavera; verano, el final de la primavera y el principio del verano; y estío, el fin del verano.” Since then, estío and verano have become synonyms.

As an adjective corresponding to the new summery sense of verano, Spanish couldn’t use vernal, which stayed associated with the early part of the spring–summer continuum, so Spanish speakers created veraniego ‘pertaining to the summer.’ Because the heat during the hottest months can be debilitating, veraniego has added the sense ‘becoming sickly or mentally unstable in the summer.’ From verano Spanish has also created the one-letter-different verbs veranar ‘to spend the summer [anywhere]’ and veranear ‘to take a summer vacation away from home,’ as well as the noun veraneo ‘a summer vacation.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Primavera and spring

Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.

Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.

Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Taking refuge in etymology

The last post dealt with a few descendants of the Latin verb fugere ‘to flee’ and the noun fuga ‘the act of fleeing,’ so let’s continue. ‘A person who flees’ is a fugitivo/fugitive. Another offshoot is refugio/refuge, which is etymologically ‘[a place] to flee back [to].’ English has a doublet in Latin refugium, which is a biological term for (in the definition of the Oxford Dictionaries) ‘An area in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions, especially glaciation.’

There are other “fleeful” scientific relatives. A centrifugio/centrifuge is ‘a machine that spins and causes a substance placed within it to literally ‘flee the center.’ A febrifugio/febrifuge is ‘a medicine that causes a fever to flee,’ so to speak; a vermifugio/vermifuge does likewise for parasitic worms in the intestines. A calcifuga/calcifuge is ‘a plant that doesn’t grow well in calcium-rich soil.’

English calls ‘a person who flees in search of a refuge’ a refugee, while Spanish took the equivalent prófugo from a different compound of Latin fugere. With yet another prefix—Latin subter, whose literal meaning was ‘beneath’ and whose extended sense was ‘secretly’—we have subterfugio/subterfuge. The 1913 Webster’s defined the word as: ‘That to which one resorts for escape or concealment; an artifice employed to escape censure or the force of an argument, or to justify opinions or conduct; a shift; an evasion.’ Politician, thy name is Subterfuge.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

ten and ten times ten

The Spanish word ciento, which gets shortened to cien before a noun, means ‘a hundred.’ The synonymous Latin original was centum, whose cent- corresponds to the hund- in the native English cognate hundred (with the -red developing from a Germanic root that meant ‘reckoning, number,’ senses similar to those of the apparent Latin cognate ratio).

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Latin centum, which was pronounced kentum, had developed from Indo-European *dkm-tom, whose first element led to Latin decem and Spanish diez as well as English ten. It’s not clear what sense the Indo-European suffix -tom conveyed in its own right, but the compound *dkm-tom ultimately came to mean ‘ten groups of ten.’§ As for form, the d of *dkm-tom was eventually lost, and the -kmt- of the remainder went on to produce Latin cent(um) and English hund(red).

The Modern Latin phrase per centum ‘for [each] hundred’ has become Spanish por ciento. English originally borrowed the Latin phrase in full, then began abbreviating it per cent., with a period to show that cent. was indeed an abbreviation. Only in the early part of the 20th century—another derivative, like Spanish centuria, of Latin centum—did English drop the period, writing at first per cent, then the combined percent that is the usual current form.

The French descendant of Latin centum is cent, which Americans have adopted as a monetary unit worth one one-hundredth of a dollar. The analog in Spanish-speaking countries is the centavo, or in some countries the centésimo.

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§ On that score, I have to report that one day in the early 1970s I was in a supermarket on Long Island and overheard a nearby woman tell her daughter that ten times ten is a hundred, which is true enough, and that a hundred times a hundred is a thousand, which is not. Etymology could have ridden to the rescue there, because Germanic *thūs-hundi‑, the ancestor of English thousand, meant ‘a swollen hundred,’ which is to say ‘ten times a hundred.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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