In my other blog I recently showed a close-up photograph of a cricket, and a commenter said that I should have added some etymology to the entomology by bringing in the word stridulation, which Spanish shares in the expected form estridulación. The latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary gives two definitions:

1. Characterized by or making a shrill grating sound or noise.
2. Relating to or characterized by stridor.

 That second definition makes us aware that there’s a related noun stridor, which also has a two-part English definition:

1. A harsh, shrill, grating, or creaking sound.
2. Medicine  A harsh, high-pitched sound in inhalation or exhalation.

The DRAE defines the Spanish counterpart estridor as ‘Sonido agudo, desapacible y chirriante,’ which is about the same as the English definition.

Both forms of the noun go back to Latin strīdēre, an imitative verb that meant ‘to make harsh sounds.’ From that verb Latin created the adjective strīdulus, which we’ve borrowed as estriduloso/stridulous, and which is the basis for the modern verb estridular/stridulate and the noun that we began with, estridulación/stridulation.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Here’s how the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines the adjective coleóptero (which also functions as a noun) : ‘Se dice de los insectos que tienen boca dispuesta para masticar, caparazón consistente y dos élitros córneos que cubren dos alas membranosas, plegadas al través cuando el animal no vuela.’ English-speaking entomologists use the equivalent coleopteran, and the rest of us usually say beetle (though some other insects like weevils and fireflies are in this group as well).

Scientists created the technical term coleóptero/coleopteran from the Greek words koleon ‘sheath’ and pteron ‘wing,’ a reference to the fact that a beetle has two sheaths that cover each of its membranous wings when the insect is at rest (and in fact the sheaths evolved as modifications of what were originally forewings).

While coleóptero/coleopteran is hardly a common word, the name of a much larger flying thing is: it’s helicóptero/helicopter, literally ‘[an aircraft with a] helical wing.’ Most English speakers analyze the word as heli + copter, even to the point that copter exists as a colloquial shortening of the compound and heli- serves as a first element in heliport, but etymology thumbs its nose at that division and insists that helicopter is really helico ‘helical’ + pter ‘wing.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Palpably false

This blog excepted, of course, the Internet is a great source of misinformation about language (and everything else). Take the page entitled English language did you knows. It claims that “skiing is the only word with double i.” Nice try, but that leaves out genii and radii; it also omits the tasty mushrooms called shiitake, along with the entomological term reduviid, a name for assassin bugs, which find other insects tasty.

The same website claims that “the longest one-syllable [hyphen mine] word in the English language is ‘screeched,'” but a bit higher on the page we see the statement that “the word ‘Strengths’ is the longest word in the English language with just one vowel.” Notice that strengths, like screeched, also has nine letters that form a single syllable, so at best screeched is tied for the longest one-syllable word.

The English language did you knows page begins with a list of words that supposedly don’t rhyme with anything else. The claim is true for most of the words, including eighth if it’s pronounced eightth, but not if it’s pronounced in a way that rhymes with faith (which is the pronunciation I grew up with); the same sort of thing holds true for breadth, which many English speakers pronounce as if it were breath, which of course ceases after death. And as for the supposedly unrhymable scalp, the unidentified compiler(s) of this list apparently never heard of the lower case alp, a word formed from Alps that now designates a high mountain in general.

Another English word that rhymes with scalp is palp, which the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary defined as ‘a feeler; especially, one of the jointed sense organs attached to the mouth organs of insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and annelids.’ The word is derived from Latin palpare ‘to stroke, touch softly, pat.’ English once borrowed that as palp, a verb meaning ‘to have a distinct touch or feeling of.’ Though palp as a verb is archaic or obsolete in English, the equivalent Spanish palpar is alive and well. Medical English has the verb palpate, meaning ‘to examine a body by pressing it with your fingers.’ Spanish and English have the adjective palpable, whose meanings include ‘touchable’ and by extension ‘obvious, evident, easily noticed or perceived.’

© 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


I remember the beginning of the well-known Mexican song by Marcos A. Jiménez:

Adiós, Mariquita linda,
ya me voy porque tú ya no me quieres
como yo te quiero a ti.

Goodbye, pretty little Marica,
I’m going away now because you no longer love me
As much as I love you.

Written with a capital letter, Mariquita is the diminutive of Marica, which itself is a pet form of María (as is Maruca). But with a small letter, mariquita is the Spanish word for what English variously calls a ladybug, a ladybird, or now increasingly and with biological accuracy a lady beetle. That the Spanish name for the insect should be linked to María may seem strange, but in Catholic countries, of which Spain is one, María understandably has strong positive connotations. This is the María/Mary to whom people, including Paul McCartney, find themselves appealing in times of trouble. And appealing to our eyes is the bright red covering of the ladybug—note how the English term likewise refers to Mary, though using not her name but her title, [Our] Lady. Esthetics aside, farmers and agronomists have found the ladybug to be beneficial because it eats various types of smaller insects that can damage crops, and that beneficial nature is apparently the common quality that originally linked the ladybug to Our Lady.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

P.S.  Readers who’d like to supplement these words with a picture can turn to my recently launched nature photography blog to see a photograph of a lady beetle in a colony of wild sunflowers.


With respect to a circle, students of geometry learn that the line called the secante/secant is one that cuts across the circle in two places. The name isn’t arbitrary: the word is the present participle of the Latin verb secare ‘to cut,’ so the secant line is a ‘cutting’ line. As Latin evolved to Spanish, secare became segar, whose basic meaning is ‘to cut down ripe grain or other plants with a sickle, scythe, or other dedicated instrument; to reap, to harvest, to crop.’ The verb can also mean ‘to cut off something that sticks out,’ including, for someone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, a head. More generally segar is ‘to cut off or interrupt quickly or abruptly.’

Spanish segador is literally ‘someone or something that harvests,’ but the word has a specialized meaning in zoology, where it designates what English has similarly called a harvestman, though the term daddy-longlegs is more familiar to most English speakers. The creature in question is an invertebrate that people might at first glance take for a long-legged spider, and although it does have eight legs, its tiny body has only one section, unlike the two major sections (abdomen and cephalothorax) of a spider. The name segador/harvestman apparently comes from the resemblance of each of the little animal’s elongated, thin, conspicuously jointed legs to a scythe or sickle.

A harvestman on a harvester

Before I cut off this post, I’d like to point out that English sickle, mentioned twice in the paragraphs above in conjunction with cutting grain or other plants, developed from Old English sicol. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed that word from Vulgar Latin sicila, a variant of the classical Latin secula that had the same root as secare ‘to cut’ and that meant ‘a sickle.’

© 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

Volviendo a convólvulo

The title of today’s post is misleading—how can I return to something I’ve never discussed?—but I hope you’ll suspend your disbelief, withhold your criticism, and turn with me to the topic at hand. Spanish volver ‘to return, go back’ developed from Latin volvere, whose meanings included ‘to roll, turn about, turn round, tumble’ and figuratively ‘to turn [something] over [in your mind], to ponder, meditate upon.’ To that Latin verb the Romans prefixed con- ‘together with’ to create the compound convolvere, which meant ‘to roll, wind, or twist together; to coil; to wrap around.’ For whatever reason, Spanish has neither inherited nor borrowed *convolver, but English has carried the Latin verb over as convolve, whose meanings are ‘to roll together, twist together, curl up.’

To the stem of the verb convolvere the Romans added a diminutive ending to create the noun convolvulus, which they applied to one thing in the animal world and another in the plant world; Spanish has followed suit with convólvulo. In the realm of insects, a convólvulo is ‘a certain type of caterpillar that wraps itself up in a grape vine leaf,’ and in the plant kingdom a convólvulo is ‘a certain type of twining vine.’ Botanists have gone even further, taking Latin convolvulus and adding yet another suffix: the resulting Convolvuláceas/Convolvulaceae serves as the name of the botanical family that includes the Spanish convólvulo vine and its many twining relatives. In particular, botanists use Convolvulus itself as the name of one genus in that family.

In central Texas, where I live, the most common species in the genus Convolvulus is Convolvulus equitans, which English-speaking settlers in these here parts contemptuously named Texas bindweed. Bind to other plants (including crops) it certainly does, but one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower, and I’m a man of the second kind. Look at the following photograph, taken from above.

Texas bindweed, Convolvulus equitans

Or look at this one, taken from below, and choose: weed or wildflower?

The base of a flower of Texas bindweed, Convolvulus equitans.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

madreselva – madre = selva

Yesterday’s post about madreselva ‘honeysuckle’ mentioned that the second component of the Spanish word comes from Latin silva, which meant ‘forest, woods, woodland.’ The Romans sometimes spelled the word sylva, which appears in the English version of names like Transilvania/Transylvania ‘beyond the forest’ and Pensilvania/Pennsylvania ‘Penn’s woods.’ The derived Latin adjective silvaticus meant ‘having to do with forests or woods’ and by extension ‘running wild, wild.’ Vulgar Latin changed the word to salvaticus, a form that evolved through Catalan salvatge to become Spanish salvaje and through Old French sauvage to become English savage. Life in the woods and in nature in general can indeed be savage, as the photograph of a robber fly preying on a hapless skipper butterfly confirms. The tiny bright red “balloon” on the tail of the robber fly is a parasitic mite unwittingly avenging the butterfly by preying on its savage predator.

A parasitic mite preying on a robber fly that's preying on a skipper butterfly

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Spanish family names ending in -ez

In common Spanish family names like González, Sánchez, and Rodríguez, the -ez ending originally meant ‘son of.’ The relationship is clearer in the old spelling -es, which is sometimes still used, as in the Gonzales that coexists with González. When I say that the relationship is clearer, I mean clearer to an English speaker, because that final -s is etymologically the same as the ‘s that English adds to nouns to indicate possession. In other words, Gonzales started out meaning ‘Gonzalo’s [son].’ In the case of Jiménez or Ximenes, as it used to be spelled, the original sense was therefore ‘Ximeno’s [son].’ (The x in Spanish words like this used to be pronounced the same as English sh.) Guido Gómez de Silva, who himself has one of those family names ending in -ez, notes that Ximeno may have been a Spanish rendering of the Hebrew name Shimeon or Shimon, now standardized as Simón and Simeón.

Our story continues. It so happens that there was once a Spanish apothecary by the name of J. Ximenes, in whose honor the botanical genus Ximenesia was named. Now, it may come as a surprise to people interested in language, but quite a few botanists have had a fondness for words as well as plants. On more than one occasion, a botanist has created a new genus name from an existing one by changing the old name in some fashion. That happened to Ximenesia: a botanist took its nine letters, cast aside one i, rearranged the remaining eight letters, and came out with the almost-anagram Sexmenia. Then—either for the sake of modesty, since it would be too flagrant to have a name beginning with Sex, or else to avoid confusion with the Latin sex that means ‘six’ in various words—changed the initial s to a similar-sounding z (thereby coincidentally following the s~z alternation at the end of Spanish family names). With some poetic license we can even imagine that the z represents the buzzing of bees attracted to the orange-flowered plant that has come to be called Zexmenia. Botanists and native plant aficionados in Texas, where this member of the daisy family grows, still can’t resist the thrill of calling it sex mania and sex maniac.

A butterfly on zexmenia

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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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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