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


The previous posting pointed out that the name of the dessert called tiramisú/tiramisu is actually an Italian imperative meaning ‘pull me up’ or ‘pick me up.’ Spanish has its own strength-giving command in tentempié, which we can analyze as ten + te + en + pie, literally ‘keep yourself on your feet.’ Spanish uses this four-words-rolled-into-one noun to mean ‘a snack,’ which is more general than the specific dessert called tiramisú/tiramisu. As an example of usage, take this sentence from the 1903 Mexican book La intervención y el imperio (1861-1867), by Victoriano Salado Álvarez:

Or, jumping ahead a century, take these words from a 2005 ad for a tropical fruit drink: “La piña y el toque exótico del mango ofrecen un tentempié ideal para ser consumido en cualquier momento del día.”

Someone who responded to a query about tentempié on wrote: “It is a charming word we all recognize, but we don’t use often. It is not just any snack, but a little snack that you have between meals to keep you going. To be precise, ‘to keep you going while you stand’.”

As for the four Spanish components ten + te + en + pie, English has relatives of them all. In the same family as Spanish tener ‘to have, hold, keep’ are English verbs like contain and detain that trace back through Old French to Latin. In an early posting to this blog I looked at Spanish te and its archaic English cognate thee. Native English in is the same as the Latin in that became Spanish en. Finally, native English foot is a cognate of the Latin ped- that is now Spanish pie.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


We in the Americas have seen the increasing popularity in recent years of a confection that English knows as tiramisu. explains that it is ‘an Italian dessert consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in coffee and brandy or liqueur with powdered chocolate and mascarpone cheese.’ English speakers usually stress the next-to-the-last syllable, but the Italian original is tiramisù, with an accent mark that, as in the Spanish transliteration tiramisú, indicates which syllable to stress when a word doesn’t conform to the standard accentuation pattern its spelling would call for. The Italian term now functions as a noun, but it originated as the imperative “Tirami su.” A Spanish speaker can easily see that the first part is equivalent to tírame ‘pull me,’ and only the end of the phrase is in doubt. The su evolved from Latin sursum, which meant, as does its Italian descendant, ‘up, upwards,’ so “Tirami su” means literally ‘Pull me up’ or ‘Pick me up.’ An Italian speaker hears the name of this dessert as something to ‘pick me up’ when a little extra energy would hit the spot.

English does the same sort of thing as Italian when it uses pick-me-up as a noun meaning ‘a restorative, tonic, bracer,’ and in particular ‘a stimulating drink.’ English also uses the expression less specifically, as when Shelly Banjo wrote in The Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2011: “The artwork will then be donated to a school, synagogue or other public place in need of an aesthetic pick-me-up.”

In lieu of pick-me-up English has sometimes used pickup and even picker-upper, as in this fruit juice ad in the July 8, 1940, issue of Life magazine:

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


Americans who were teenagers in the early 1960s probably remember a dance called the mashed potato. If English could give a dance that strange name, then Spanish had as much right to call one the merengue. Spanish merengue originally meant (and still does) the same as English meringue, namely ‘a dessert made from whipped egg whites and sugar.’ Spanish and English independently took the name for the dessert from French méringue, a word of uncertain origin, though there has been no lack of hypotheses among linguists investigating French etymology. As for merengue the dance, perhaps its movements were seen as resembling those involved in the beating of egg whites; after all, people have perceived weirder resemblances between one thing and another than that (just take a look at constellations and the names different cultures have given them).

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


I just noticed that my local Texas edition of the New York Times for December 5, 2010, included a feature article entitled “If Only Laws Were Like Sausages.” By coincidence, that same day (as I reported in yesterday’s posting), after I wrote about abalorio in this column, a friend said that the word reminded her of abalone, to which I couldn’t resist replying that that was okay as long as the posting didn’t seem like a [lot of] baloney. It’s no baloney to say that Spanish abalorio and English abalone do sometimes remind English speakers of baloney, which is a respelling of the still-in-use bologna. That in turn is a shortening of the older phrase bologna sausage, a clear statement that that popular type of sausage originated in Bologna, Italy.

According to J.E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, speakers of American English as far back as 1920 were using baloney to mean ‘an oafish, stupid, or clumsy person; idiot; worthless individual.’ The citation given from that year was: “Kane Holliday, alias Kid Roberts, had won his first professional fight by knocking out a boloney with the nom du ring of Young Du Fresne.” From the notion of ‘a stupid person’ came the ‘nonsense’ that such a person would say and that is the current colloquial meaning of baloney.

In French and Italian spelling, gn represents the same sound as Spanish ñ (think of French-borrowed English vignette, for example), so it’s surprising that Spanish calls the Italian city of Bologna not *Boloña but Bolonia. However, Spanish reverts to the ñ in the corresponding adjective boloñés ‘having to do with or residing in Bologna.’ English speakers may encounter the Italian cognate bolognese with reference not to baloney but to a spaghetti sauce containing ground meat, tomatoes, and spices; Spanish similarly speaks of salsa boloñesa.

© 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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