Eyeing some other descendants of Latin rete

After the previous entry about Latin reticulum, Spanish retículo, English reticulate, and related words, Teleri commented that the post reminded her “of the old-fashioned word (which I remember from Jane Austen novels) ‘reticule’ – a small bag, presumably netted or reticulate.” A good observation. I’ll follow up on that and say that in addition to reticule, English has the one-letter-shorter reticle, a technical term that means ‘a system of wires or lines in the focus of a telescope or other instrument’; that also happens to be one of the meanings of the Spanish noun retículo, which exists in the feminine version retícula as well. To add to this profusion of confusing words, reticle has also been spelled reticule. Although that last fact may not by itself seem ridiculous, an English speaker (or a Spanish speaker, for that matter) might well find it strange that the Spanish version of the ‘netted purse’ word is ridículo, which coincidentally but unrelatedly means ‘ridiculous.’

The first word in the title of today’s post is my entrée to another derivative of rete, the basic Latin word for ‘net.’ From that noun, scholars in the Middle Ages created retina as a name for ‘the membrane comprising the rear, inner surface of the eyeball,’ because of the network of blood vessels found there. Retina is one of those words that have the identical spelling and meaning in Spanish and English, but the two languages diverge when it comes to the adjective that corresponds to retina: Spanish has retiniano, while English has retinal. One last bit of confusion: English retinal is another name for retineno/retinene, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘Either of two yellow to red retinal pigments, formed by oxidation of vitamin A alcohols.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Codifying codo

The last post pointed out that Latin cubitum meant ‘an elbow’ and by extension ‘the distance from the end of a person’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger.’ We’ve carried that second sense over as the borrowed cúbito/cubit, but the original sense survives in the technical Spanish and English adjective cubital ‘pertaining to the elbow.’ In a similar vein (or should we say joint?), Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines the adjective antecubital as ‘of or relating to the inner or front surface of the forearm.’

Spanish preserves the ‘elbow’ sense of Latin cubitum in codo, the form that developed naturally from it. Spanish has gone on to create new words based on codo, including the diminutive codillo that describes ‘the upper foreleg of a quadruped’ as well as ‘the part of a branch adjacent to the trunk of a tree.’ A recodo  is ‘a[n elbow-like] bend in a road or river.’ The verb acodarse means ‘to support one’s body by leaning on an elbow,’ and the matching abstract noun is acodadura. The less-comfortable and even painful (for the person on the receiving end) codazo is ‘the jabbing of an elbow into someone,’ from the verb codear ‘to elbow, nudge, jostle.’ In contrast, the idiom empinar el codo, literally ‘to raise an elbow,’ means ‘to drink an alcoholic beverage,’ especially in copious amounts, something that can likewise lead to pain.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


After lunch today I ate some almonds, so it seems reasonable to write about that type of nut this afternoon. Although some English words that begin with al-, and many more Spanish ones that begin that way, come from Arabic, this isn’t one of them. English almond is the modern form of Middle English almande, borrowed directly from Old French. That word had developed from Late Latin amandula, a refashioning (to put it kindly) of Latin amygdala, which the Romans had taken from amygdale, the Greek word for ‘almond.’ The garbling (to put it realistically) of the classical Latin word also followed another course, to Vulgar Latin amyndula, and then, with more shuffling around of the consonants and a change from l to r, to almendra, the Spanish word for ‘almond.’ In spite of all the changes in both lines of development, English almond and Spanish almendra have ended up being fairly similar.

Renaissance anatomists went back to Latin for amígdala/amygdala, which they used originally for ‘a tonsil,’ and later for ‘any of various other almond-shaped organs,’ including, in the words of Webster’s New World College Dictionary ’a small, round mass of gray matter in the front part of the temporal lobe of the brain.’ Wikipedia adds that the amygdala is “believed to play a key role in the emotions, such as fear and pleasure, in both animals and humans.” If so, then people who delight in the taste of an almond are stimulating their amygdala.

But delight can turn to sorrow, and some readers of this column were no doubt saddened recently to learn about the death on October 14 of the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, the discoverer or creator—depending on how you see mathematics—of the beautiful type of pattern he named a fractal. Why mention him here now? Because the name Mandelbrot is made up of German Mandel ‘almond’ and Brot ‘bread,’ so Mandelbrot happens to mean ‘almond bread.’

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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