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

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


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


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

Previous Older Entries Next Newer 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: