Some etymological interference

Or say more specifically some etymological interference from French. A friend recently forwarded to me an e-mail with some interesting facts about French words, like the longest French palindrome (ressasser) and the curiosity of squelette being the only masculine word ending in -ette. The introduction to the list of curiosities said it was intended “pour les férus de la langue française,” meaning “for those people who are passionate about (literally ‘smitten with’) the French language.” I recognized féru as the past participle of a verb that has otherwise almost disappeared from French, férir, meaning ‘to strike,’ and coming from Latin ferīre ‘to knock, strike, kill.’ And there lies the connection to Spanish, because Latin ferīre evolved to Spanish herir, with the characteristic phonetic shift from f- to h-, and in this case with a shift in meaning to ‘to wound.’ In addition, the Spanish feminine past participle herida has come to function as a noun meaning ‘a wound.’

But this is a blog about the connections between Spanish and English, so on to the English—but not without returning to French again. Old French ferir entered into the compound s’entreferer ‘to strike one another, to trade blows.’ That passed away in French, but not before passing into English as interfere, (which, I’ll add “pour les férus de la langue française,” French later reimported as interférer).

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


You don’t have to be very sharp to recognize that Spanish cacto means the same as English cactus. Nevertheless, if Gertrude Stein, speaking of a different plant that also has showy flowers and warrants careful handling, wrote that “A rose is a rose is a rose,” people who delve into etymology and botany can say that “A cactus isn’t a cactus isn’t a cactus.” For the Romans, the word cactus referred to a cardo/cardoon, which is a thistly relative of the artichoke that people cultivate for its edible root and petioles [leaf stalks]. The Romans had taken cactus from Greek kaktos, which designated a certain prickly plant found in Sicily that is now called an alcachofa española/Spanish artichoke.

To transfer a word from an artichoke to a cardoon wasn’t much of a stretch, but how did cacto/cactus come to designate the different sort of plant we know by that name today? The answer is that Linnaeus, the great categorizer of modern botany, mistakenly believing that cacti, with their spines, are related to thistles, with their prickles, recycled the ancient thistle-related Latin word as a name for what later turned out to be an unrelated family of plants. By then the modern sense of cacto/cactus had become firmly established, and we have been stuck with—or by—it ever since.

Prickly Pear Cactus Spine Piercing Tuna 5069

The small and large spines of a prickly pear cactus.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Yesterday in my other blog I showed a photograph of some blossoming agarita, a shrub whose name English has taken straight from Spanish. Although the steps in the etymology are vague, agarita seems to be based on Mexican Spanish agrito, the diminutive of agrio ‘bitter.’ People who know that this shrub produces small red fruits that have traditionally been made into a sweet jelly may wonder about the connection, but ‘tart’ may be a better translation of agrio than ‘bitter’ in this case. In Old Spanish the adjective was agro, which developed from Latin acer, with stem acr-, that meant ‘sharp’: think of the related acrimonia/acrimony and agudo/acute, for example. That sharpness is coincidentally appropriate for agarita, which has stiff leaves whose lobes taper to needle-like points.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Fascination with fasciation

In a post in my nature photography blog today I showed a picture of a plant afflicted by the condition that botanists call fasciación/fasciation. I explained that botanists created that term, with some imagination, from the Latin noun fascia that meant ‘a strip of material, ribbon, band, bandage, swathe.’ If you haven’t already clicked on the link to the photograph, you can do so now and see if you think the fasciated plant looks like any of those things.

Spanish and English have borrowed the original fascia and use it in several technical ways. As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained, “in anatomy it is applied to the layers of fibrous connective tissue which sheathe the muscles or cover various parts or organs in the body, and in zoology, and particularly in ornithology, to bands or stripes of colour. In architecture the word is used of the bands into which the architrave of the Ionic and Corinthian orders is subdivided.”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Duckweed and lentils

I was out photographing yesterday and came across some duckweed growing on the surface of a puddle. For those unfamiliar with this plant, the picture below will help; as for scale, each tiny frond is only a few millimeters in length. There are various species of duckweed in the world, some belonging to the genus Lemna, which botanists have traditionally included in the family Lemnáceas/Lemnaceae. I though lemna would be a Latin word, and that Spanish would therefore have something similar, but it seems lemna was an ancient Greek term for a type of water plant that English has called ‘star-grass.’

So what does Spanish say for ‘duckweed’? The answer is either of the two similar phrases lenteja acuática and lenteja de agua. Translate the second of those into English and we have water lentil, a good description of what this diminutive aquatic plant looks like. If lentils are nutritious, so is duckweed, with the English name implying that ducks eat it. Wikipedia even takes that higher up the food chain: “Duckweed is an important high-protein food source for waterfowl and also is eaten by humans in some parts of Southeast Asia. As it contains more protein than soybeans, it is sometimes cited as a significant potential food source.” I wonder what a dish made with lentejas and lentejas de agua might taste like. If any intrepid reader would like to find out and report back, we’d be much obliged.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


The previous post connected Spanish mariquita ‘ladybug’ to Mary, whom Catholics refer to as Our Lady. Mary is also connected to a larger and even prettier insect, the butterfly, which Spanish calls a mariposa. That word was apparently created by combining María and the imperative of posar ‘to set down, place, pose, alight.’ Guido Gómez de Silva suggests that María may be a stand-in for ‘woman’ in general, and for support he points to babochka, the Russian word for ‘butterfly,’ which is a diminutive of the baba that means ‘woman.’

If we switch over to the botanical world, at least as English describes it, we have marigold. Old English called the flower just golde, based on the yellow-orange of the flowers. The reference to Mary was added in the Middle Ages.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


For those not familiar with Spanish and English carambola, it’s the fruit of an Asian tree that Spanish calls carambolo (English uses the feminine for the fruit and the tree). Both languages took carambola from Portuguese, which may have borrowed it from karambal, a word in the Marathi language of India. The yellow fruit, whose edible flesh is somewhat acrid, has prominent ridges on its outside, as shown here, so that a slice across the fruit perpendicular to the ridges produces sections that have a stylized star shape. For that reason, English also calls the carambola a star fruit.

Spanish has used its own imagination in this case, giving carambola the additional meanings shown in this entry from the 1862 Diccionario portátil de la lengua castellana:

Spanish revesino is the name of a card game, and the more familiar truco has various meanings, one of which, often as a plural, is ‘a game akin to billiards.’ The 22nd edition of the Diccionario de la lengua española adds another sense of carambola: ‘lance del juego de trucos o billar en el que la bola arrojada toca a otras dos,’ which is to say ‘a stroke in the game of trucos or billiards in which the cue ball strikes two others.’ Notice in all this the curious disregard for the ridges on the tropical fruit, which make it a strange model for a billiard ball. Or maybe the way that a carambola fruit bounces around when it rolls on a flat surface led to the Spanish sense of hitting first one ball and then another. (Yes, the semantics are bouncy, too.)

For the next part of the story we have to turn to French. According to the Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, in the early 1600s French borrowed the Portuguese plural carambolas as the singular carambole, which served as a name for the tropical fruit. In the late 1700s, apparently looking to Spanish, French used carambole for ‘a billiard ball.’ At the same time, the verb caramboler came to mean, with reference to a cue ball in billiards, ‘to strike two other balls.’

And finally the non-fruit connection to English: English borrowed the French verb caramboler, keeping its meaning but shortening the word to carom. With a caroming beyond the confines of the billiard table, English carom has added the more general sense ‘to hit and bounce off,’ as when an out-of-control car caroms off a highway guard rail. British English, by the way, added yet another hop: influenced by the name of the weapon of war that fires metal spheres, it changed the verb carom to cannon.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


Here’s how the 22nd edition of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines camedrio: ‘Planta de la familia de las Labiadas, pequeña, de tallos duros, vellosos, hojas pequeñas parecidas a las del roble y flores purpúreas en verticilos colgantes, usadas como febrífugo.’ In English, we’d have ‘A plant in the Lamiaceae [mint family], small, with hard stems, hairy, small leaves similar to those of an oak, and purple flowers in hanging verticils [whorls], used as a febrifuge [fever reducer].’

Another Spanish name for the plant is germandrina, a word that surprisingly, except for its diminutive ending, developed from the same source as camedrio. The  original Greek name for the plant was khamaidrus, a word made up of khamai ‘on the ground’ and drus ‘oak,’ so the compound described a plant low to the ground that nevertheless has leaves like those of the mighty oak. The Romans borrowed the word as the little-changed chamaedrys, which has become Spanish camedrio. Late Greek refashioned the original as khamandrua, which Medieval Latin further garbled to germandrea; that’s the source of English germander, French germandrée, and the alternate Spanish name germandrina.

Linnaeus, the great Swedish biologist and classifier par excellence, assigned the plant the scientific name Teucrium chamaedrys. That designates the European species that the Greeks called khamaidrus, but botanists have identified closely related plants in different parts of the world that are now also classified in the genus Teucrium. The species that’s native here in central Texas also grows in all the contiguous states of the United States and as far north as Canada, a fact conveyed by its scientific name, Teucrium canadense. Citizens of the “Lower 48,” not to be overshadowed by their neighbor to the north, insist on calling the plant American germander. Anyone wishing to remain neutral can use another vernacular name, wood-sage, which refers to the plant’s predilection for growing in shaded or partly shaded areas.

Flowers and buds of American germander (Teucrium canadense)

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


Late last week the Austin area finally got rain, from one to four inches of it, depending on the location. We’ve been in a drought here, so I welcomed the rainfall, not only for its own sake but because it meant that within a few days the first rain-lilies (Cooperia pedunculata) of the season would make an appearance. Appear they did, and in one happily un-built-on place in my neighborhood where rain-lilies had sprung up in springtimes past I reveled in a colony a couple of hundred strong. Reveled is the right word: it conveys an immediacy befitting the rain-lily, whose pristine white flower lasts only a day or so before an initial tinge of pink on its petals’ tips has spread and darkened in synchrony with the flower’s fading.

A rain-lily as it's just beginning to fade

The rain-lily grows from a bulb. The English word lily grew from Old English lilie, which the Anglo-Saxons transplanted from Latin lilium. Spanish says lirio, which might seem to have come from the Greek leirion that also meant ‘lily.’ But no, Spanish lirio developed from Latin lilium, with an alternation from l to r occurring along the way. As for Latin lilium, it could have come from Greek leirion, but with an alternation from r to l; etymologists also hold out the possibility that both ancient words came independently from a non-Indo-European language of the Mediterranean, which might have been Egyptian.

Though the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and fell on the Greeks and the Romans, and though those ancient peoples knew the leirion and the lilium, they never saw a rain-lily, which is strictly an American wildflower.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Here today, gone tomorrow

In a post dated May 3, 2011, entitled “Night Owls and Early Birds,” Lexie Kahn wrote:

Ian Tattersal coined the term cathemeral in 1979 to describe an animal whose activity is ‘evenly throughout the 24 h of the daily cycle,’ from the Greek words “κατα” (through) and  “ἡμέρα” [hɛːméraː] (the day, read as the 24-hour daily cycle).

I don’t find cathemeral in any of my regular dictionaries (and for what it’s worth, my spell checker, a slave to foolish consistency, underlines cathemeral each time I type it), but the word has a relative that is in all but the simplest of dictionaries. The ancient Greeks created the original of that more common relative by using as a first element not kata but epi, a preposition with many senses. The resulting Greek ephemeros, literally ‘[lasting only] for a day,’ is the source of our efímero/ephemeral, which can mean the same as its Greek ancestor but also more loosely ‘of brief duration, short-lived.’

The ancient Greeks used ephemeron, the neuter of ephemeros, as a name for the mayfly, an insect whose adult stage lasts just a day or so. For entomologists, whose technical vocabulary forces them to be etymologists whether they’re so inclined or not, an ephemerid is ‘an insect of the mayfly family.’ Spanish calls that type of insect an efímera (though the vernacular name is cachipolla). In the world of botany, Spanish efémero serves as a name for the plant it also calls lirio hediondo, a type of lily whose foul-smelling flowers presumably don’t last long. And astronomers, who look up at the heavens and sometimes down on biologists as mere cataloguers, look to an efemérides/ephemeris, which used to mean ‘a diary,’ when they need ‘a book that tabulates the apparent positions of stars and planets throughout the year.’ Note that the Spanish form efemérides corresponds to a Greek plural; in addition to the singular ephemeris, English can also say ephemerides, but it still treats that formal plural as a singular, just as it does with Greek-derived abstract nouns like mathematics, ethics, physics, and politics.

Learned English uses the Greek noun ephemeron, with plural ephemera, for ‘a short-lived thing.’ In particular, collectors have adopted the term ephemera to designate printed matter like tickets, playbills, and posters, that were originally meant to be used for a short time and then discarded. And coming full circle, English speakers have to wonder whether the word with which this post began will catch on, or whether cathemeral will be ephemeral.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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