We begin today’s post with a discussion of the rare English word nosism, which, but for an old prejudice against English and in favor of Latin and Greek, we might otherwise be calling weism. We who have studied Spanish or grew up speaking the language recognize the nos in nosism as the form of the Spanish first person plural pronoun that acts as a direct and indirect object, but in Latin nos functioned as the direct object or the subject of a verb. A Roman emperor or dictator, who we can agree had an overwhelming need for self-aggrandizement, might speak to his subjects with nos, thereby puffing himself up into a plural long before cloning became a biological possibility. Nosism is a name for that imperial or royal we, and more generally for an excessive use of we.

Astute readers will have noticed that we began today’s entry with the word we and repeated it as the subject of several more clauses in the first paragraph. We sometimes call that sort of usage the literary or author’s we, with which we aim to create a bond with our readers. We also note that Latin nos was a short word, one that modern Spanish has felt the need to build up into nosotros, which we can see really means ‘we others’ or ‘the rest of us.’ What we find harder to see until someone points it out to us is that English us, whose Germanic ancestor *uns still had an n in the middle of it, is a cognate of Latin and Spanish nos.

For more on nosism, I (yes, I) call your attention to Ben Zimmer’s “On Words” column in the October 3, 2010, New York Times, which prompted today’s blog entry.

©2016 Steven Schwartzman


How appropriate, with the northern hemisphere about to enter winter, that I recently learned the Spanish verb arrecirse, which means ‘to become numb, swollen, or stiff with cold.’ While a first glance probably doesn’t suggest any connection to English, the DRAE traces arrecir to Latin *arrigescere, an inchoative version of the Classical Latin verb arrigere ‘to set up, raise, erect.’ The underlying Indo-European root is the *reg- ‘to move in a straight line’ that underlies so many words in Spanish and English, e.g. corregir/correct, dirigir/direct, regente/regent, and native English right.

Etymology aside, arrecir is one of 16 Spanish verbs (plus compounds) whose present tenses share the peculiarity that they have forms only for the first and second person plural. In this case, that means nosotros nos arrecimos and vosotros os arrecís. Strange, huh? We get numb with cold but I by myself don’t. Of course, where there’s a chill there’s a way, and when the action is happening now rather than being put forth as habitual, we can use a circumlocution like me estoy arreciendo. If you’d like, you can click to see the 15 other verbs that follow this curious pattern.


Native speakers of standard Spanish, like those of standard English, are unlikely to recognize traila. The word is an example of Spanglish, or some would say Tex-Mex. By whatever designation, traila is a Spanish version of the English word trailer. While traila can refer to the type of trailer that people live in, which is to say a mobile home, when I saw the word in Austin the other day it appeared on the side of a vehicle from which people buy breakfast or lunch, i.e. a food trailer.

English trailer obviously comes from trail: a trailer is a vehicle that trails behind the one that is pulling it. The etymology of trail itself isn’t fully established. The American Heritage Dictionary says that Middle English probably took the verb trailen, source of the modern trail, from Old French trailler, which meant ‘to hunt without a foreknown course.’ That would have developed from Vulgar Latin *trāgulāre, a hunting term meaning ‘to make a deer double back and forth.’ The AHD speculates that *trāgulāre might have arisen as an alteration of Latin trahere ‘to pull, draw,’ under the influence of Latin trāgula ‘dragnet.’ In trahere, of course, we recognize the ancestor of the synonymous Spanish traer, which according to linguasorb is the 73rd most common verb in Spanish (follow the link if you’d like to see a list of the top 100).

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Make good grades and you’ll graduate with a degree

The Spanish noun grado has various meanings, including those that can be translated into English with the related words grade and the French-derived degree. All go back to Latin gradus, a noun that meant ‘step, pace, gait, walk,’ from the verb gradī ‘to step, walk, go, advance.’ Other words we’ve borrowed from that source are the ingrediente/ingredient that ‘goes into’ a recipe; the retrógrado/retrograde that applies to something ‘moving backward’; the graduar/graduate which one does upon taking all the steps required to complete a course of study, typically in a process described as gradual.

One other related word is the temperature scale named centígrado/centigrade for the separation of a hundred grados/degrees between the freezing and boiling points of water. Also known as the Celsius scale, it stands in contrast to the Fahrenheit scale still predominantly used in the retrograde United States. And with respect to that, let me point out a curiosity that I discovered a couple of years ago, namely that in two instances a temperature in one system can be converted to its counterpart in the other (rounded to the nearest whole degree) merely by switching the digits:

16°C = 61°F and 28°C = 82°F.

Armed with that precious knowledge, you can now graduate to being the life of the party.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


In Spanish a mitón is ‘a type of glove that leaves the extremities of the fingers exposed.’ Gloves of that sort are helpful for people who want some protection from the elements but who need to maintain the dexterity that fingertips provide. (One sort of wearer that comes to mind is a nature photographer in winter.)

The fact that a mitón is a kind of glove makes an English speaker think of the word mitten, even if a mitten fully covers a hand. Might there nevertheless be a connection between the two words? It turns out that Spanish took its word straight from French miton (French stresses an isolated word on its last syllable, by the way), so we have turn Gallic for a bit. French miton was based on the Old French mite that meant ‘glove’ and that generated, with a different suffix, the mitaine that means the same as Spanish mitón. English borrowed mitaine as mitten, whose sense shifted to that of a glove that still dealt with different parts of the hand in distinct ways, but now with the distinction being between the thumb and the other four fingers collectively.

Many etymologists assume that the French mite which by itself and through its derivatives referred to gloves is the same mite that French-speaking children use as an alternate name for a cat, the idea being that a glove or mitten is as soft as a cat’s fur.

English mitt, by the way, arose as a shortened form of mitten.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


I recently encountered the noun coquina on an English-language blog. Pursuing the word, I found a Wikipedia article defining coquina as “a sedimentary rock that is composed either wholly or almost entirely of the transported, abraded, and mechanically-sorted fragments of the shells of molluscs, trilobites, brachiopods, or other invertebrates.” That geological sense came about as an extended use of Spanish coquina, which at its most literal refers to wedge-shaped clams in the genus Donax.

French readers will recognize the relationship of coquina to coquille, which English has also borrowed and which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘a scallop-shaped dish or a scallop shell in which various seafood dishes are browned and served.’ That dictionary traces the French term back to conchȳlia, a plural of the conchȳlium that the Romans made from Greek konkhulion. That diminutive meant ‘shellfish.’ The basic word was konkhos, which has made its way into English as conch and into Spanish as concha. Coquina seems to have arisen in Spanish as a diminutive of concha.

By the way, coquille already existed in Old French, where the -ll- retained its l-ness and hadn’t yet turned into a y-sound. That accounts for the fact that the first time English borrowed coquille it was in the Middle English form cokel, which has become cockle.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


I recently came across the past participle of a Spanish verb I didn’t recognize, agrietar. When I looked it up in the DRAE I found it defined as ‘Abrir grietas o hendiduras,’ which is a semi-circular definition, with the noun grieta obviously based on the same root as agrietar. As hendidura is ‘a crack, a break, agrietar means ‘to crack, to break,’ and the noun grieta is ‘a crack, fissure, break.’ Delving into the etymology, I found that grieta had changed slightly from Old Spanish crieta, which had developed from Vulgar Latin *crepta, a syncopated version of Latin crepita, the feminine past participle of crepāre, ‘to burst, crack.’

From the past participle of crepāre Latin created the frequentative form crepitāre, whose meanings were ‘to rattle, creak, crackle, clatter, rustle, rumble, chatter, murmur.’ French borrowed that Latin verb as crépiter, and then Spanish borrowed the French verb as crepitar, with the meanings ‘to crackle, sizzle,’ particularly with respect to fire.

Continuing our story of past participles, Latin had attached as a prefix to crepitus to create the adjective dēcrepitus ‘worn out, feeble,’ which English has borrowed as decrepit. Spanish seems to lack that adjective, but has the verb decrepitar that means, with respect to salt, ‘to crackle when put over a fire.’ Another translation is ‘to calcine salt until it has ceased to crackle in the fire.’ In that sense English likewise has the technical verb decrepitate.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The English term will-o’-the-wisp means, to quote the definition in Wordsmyth, ‘a phosphorescent light that appears to hover over marshes at night, possibly arising from spontaneous combustion of marsh gases.’ The phrase used to be will of the wisp, and before that will with the wisp. Wordsmyth defines wisp as ‘a thin bundle, bunch, tuft, streak, or the like, as of straw, hair, or smoke,’ which makes sense as a description of the hazy atmospheric occurrence. But what about will? There’s no reason to think it’s the will that expresses volition or futurity, but let’s suspend judgment on that for the time being. (And speaking of judgment, mine is that in America we ought to spell the word the way the British do: judgement, with the e that indicates a “soft” g.)

The first part of will-o’-the-wisp turns out to be the name Will, apparently chosen as a personification of the mysterious phenomenon in the same sort of way that Jack got chosen for jack-o’-lantern, but with the bonus of the alliteration in will with the wisp (in fact that may have been too much alliteration, as the change to will of the wisp implies).

The male name Will is short for William, from French Guillaume, and finally we see a connection to Spanish, which renders the name Guillermo. The Spanish and French forms go back to Medieval Latin Guillelmus or Gilgelmus, but they had come from Old High German Willahelm. Historical German names usually consisted of two elements, and that was the case here. The first part was wil, meaning ‘will, desire,’ so indirectly that is the will in will-o’-the-wisp. Latin velle ‘to want’ was a native cognate, and from that root we have volición/volition.

The second part of the Germanic compound was helm, meaning ‘helmet’ or more generally ‘protection.’ Germanic helm led to Old French helme, whose diminutive has become English helmet. The Germanic word similarly entered into Spanish, which has retained it as yelmo.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Remembering subvenir

The infrequently encountered Spanish verb subvenir, borrowed from Latin, means ‘to come to the aid of, to support.’ The word is a compound of Latin sub, in its sense of ‘up from under,’ and venīre, the forerunner of Spanish venir ‘to come.’ Most native English speakers would say there’s no such English verb as subvene. There is, but it’s uncommon, and not a lot of current English dictionaries include it. One that does is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which notes the verb is rare and defines it as ‘to happen or come, so as to help.’ A little more common is the derived noun subvención/subvention; that’s the ‘subsidy’ that one entity, usually a government, gives to another to support it. (Notice again the ‘up from under’ sense conveyed by sub- in the subsidy and support that prop something up.)

The French development of Latin subvenīre is the verb souvenir, in which something comes up from the storehouse of our mind into our consciousness; in other words, souvenir means ‘to remember.’ As a noun, a souvenir is something we take or buy in order to remember a place. Like English, Spanish has borrowed the French noun souvenir, but normally Spanish speakers use the native recuerdo, which is etymologically ‘something that brings a person or place back (re-) into our heart (cor[azón].’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The Latin adjective blandus meant ‘of a smooth tongue, flattering, fawning, caressing,’ senses that continued on into the Latin verb blandīrī, the source of French blandir and from it the English blandish that means ‘to coax, cajole, flatter mildly as a means to get someone to do something.’ Spanish lacks a descendant of that verb but has carried over blandus as blando, though with a shift in meaning from the Latin original. The DRAE gives these senses for blando:

Que cede fácilmente a la presión del tacto. [Easily yielding to the touch, i.e. soft.]

Suave, benigno, apacible. [Soft, benign, even-tempered, placid, mild.]

Dicho de una persona: Pusilánime, de carácter débil. [Said of a person: pusillanimous, having a weak character.]

The English adjective bland has also changed from the original Latin blandus that it was borrowed from. The 1913 Webster’s gave this as its first definition: ‘Having soft and soothing qualities; not drastic or irritating; not stimulating; as, a bland oil; a bland diet.’ The dictionary’s second definition was ‘Mild; soft; gentle; smooth and soothing in manner; suave; as, a bland temper; bland persuasion; a bland sycophant.’ In the century since then, bland has turned more negative. Recent senses of the word include: ‘uninteresting, insipid, boring.’

© 2016 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: