What’s good for the goose is good for the ganso.

If English goose and Spanish ganso mean the same thing and look alike, it’s no coincidence. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Spanish acquired ganso from a Germanic source akin to Old High German gans, a cognate of English goose. The English word used to have an n in it, and still does in the masculine version, gander.

Long after Spanish borrowed ganso from Germanic, the borrowing may have gone the other way. It’s conjectured that the slang English term gonzo ultimately traces back to ganso following the semantic line that allows English to refer to someone as a silly goose. If you’re not familiar with gonzo, the Collins English Dictionary defines it as:

1. wild or crazy
2. (of journalism) explicitly including the writer’s feelings at the time of witnessing the events or undergoing the experiences written about.

© 2017 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

A foxy plant

The German noun Fuchs** means the same as its native English cognate fox. Just as Fox serves as a family name in English, Fuchs does in German, and it so happens that the genus of plants called Fuchsia was named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs, who lived from 1501 to 1566. Because some of those plants produce flowers of a vivid reddish purple, that hue has been given the name fucsia/fuchsia. As far as I know, Spanish speakers don’t mess up their word for that color, but English speakers have mispronounced fuchsia for so long that the standard pronunciation has become fyoo-shuh. As a result of that pronunciation,  fuchsia is high on the list of the most often misspelled English words, with *fuschia probably appearing more often than the correct fuchsia.


** German still capitalizes its nouns, as English once did.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Primavera and spring

Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.

Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.

Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

подсолнечник Максимилиана

Hold your horses, pardner (as people in old American westerns used to say), this really is a post in the Spanish-English Word Connections blog. Recently I noticed that on my other blog, which deals with nature photography, the query подсолнечник Максимилиана (podsolnechnik Maksimiliana) on a search engine had brought someone to a post of mine showing a Maximilian sunflower.

Let’s look at that first Russian word, подсолнечник. The -ник (-nik) at the end is a suffix, familiar to some of you from Russian or Russian-imitated words like sputnik, peacenik, kibbutznik, and beatnik. The под (pod-) is a prefix that means ‘under.’ The heart of подсолнечник comes from the Russian word солнце (solntse), which means ‘sun,’ and in which Spanish speakers can pick out their native cognate for ‘sun,’ sol. Astronomically minded English speakers recognize the capitalized Sol, which this time is Latin, as the name of the sun when it’s treated as the center of the solar system we live in.

The American Heritage Dictionary goes back farther and traces the Latin noun to the Indo-European root for ‘sun,’ *sāwel-. In the Germanic languages that final consonant shifted to another one with approximately the same point of articulation in the mouth, so that the native English cognate of Latin (and Spanish) sol is sun. English uses sun as the name of a pagan god to name Sunday (and similarly does for all its day names), while Spanish has changed its two weekend day names to make them non-pagan.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Most English speakers recognize vamp as a short form of vampire, a word that English borrowed from French. Spanish did likewise, changing it only slightly to vampiro. It turns out that French adopted the term from German Vampir, which had come from Slavic.

Many fewer English speakers know that there’s another and unrelated vamp that is, in the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘the upper part of a boot or shoe covering the instep and sometimes extending over the toe.’ From the noun comes the original sense of the verb vamp: ‘to provide (a shoe) with a new vamp.’ Derivative senses of the verb are ‘to refurbish’ and ‘to put together; fabricate or improvise.’ Revamp is probably more familiar than the basic verb that the compound is based on.

Vamp is opaque, meaning that sound changes have obscured its origin. In fact this short and pithy noun is etymologically a compound, and as consonant-heavy as the current form is, the word doesn’t come from old English or a Germanic language. No, Middle English took vamp—originally in the sense ‘sock’—from Old French avanpie. The first element in that compound was avaunt (modern French avant), which meant ‘in front of’ and was itself a compound that developed from Latin ab ‘off, away from,’ and ante ‘before.’ Spanish, of course, still has ante- as a prefix and antes as a freestanding word. English similarly uses ante- as a prefix, and in a card game an ante is ‘an amount of money that a player has to put in before play can continue.’ The corresponding verb is to ante up.

The second element in Old French avanpie is clear to a Spanish speaker, for whom pie is still the word for ‘foot.’ In fact native English foot is a cognate.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


I recently ran across the word lustworthy applied to a camera lens rather than something more conventionally voluptuous, but I was reading Popular Photography, so what can you expect? In any case, etymology is something readers of this blog lust after, so let’s do it. Relatives of native English lust exist in other Germanic languages, including German Lust, which means ‘pleasure, delight, amusement, inclination.’ English, but apparently not Spanish, has borrowed the German compound Wanderlust ‘urge to travel.’

The underlying Indo-European root is *las-, which the American Heritage Dictionary glosses as ‘to be eager, wanton, or unruly.’ One descendant of that root in Latin was lascīvus, which meant ‘lustful, playful,’ and which is the source of lascivo/lascivious. The corresponding abstract noun in Latin was lascīvia, which Spanish has carried over unchanged. (Note that someone in Spain will pronounce both the s and the ci [θi], whereas Spanish speakers in the Americas will not pronounce the c.) English, on the other hand, has turned lascivious into the noun lasciviousness. Whether any lascivious English speakers would ever lust after the fancy word lasciviousness is an open question.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Siglo de Oro writer Mateo Alemán was Spanish, and politician Miguel Alemán rose to be president of Mexico, yet alemán in Spanish means ‘German,’ which is the translational truth, and closer to the etymological one as well. Spanish acquired alemán from Latin Alemannus, the singular of Alemanni, which was the Latinized version of the name by which the members of a certain Germanic tribe referred to themselves. With a flash of insight, all men and women who speak English, which is after all a Germanic language, may see that the ancient Alemanni called themselves straightforwardly ‘all men,’ where men had the general sense ‘people,’ as opposed to the narrower modern sense ‘male human beings.’ Similarly, the normandos/Normans are ‘north men,’ people who lived and still live in the north of what is now France, in the region therefore called Normandía/Normandy.

While we’re on the subject of man, we should note that English woman contains that word as its second element. Changes in pronunciation and spelling have obscured the first element, which in Old English was wīf, the forerunner of modern wife. Old English wīf meant ‘woman,’ so the wīfman that has become woman meant ‘person of the womanly kind.’ The fact that the first element in woman started out as wīf also explains why the first syllable in the plural women is pronounced wim, as if spelled with an i, because in fact it once was spelled with an i.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


In my other blog last week I posted a photograph of something we rarely see in central Texas, a row of icicles. That set me to thinking about the word icicle, which seems to be a compound of ice and the Latin-derived diminutive ending -icle that concludes words like cubicle, particle, ventricle, and vesicle. The truth is more interesting, however, because although the first part of icicle really is ice, the rest of the word developed from Anglo-Saxon gicel, which already meant ‘icicle’ in its own right, so that etymologically icicle redundantly means ‘ice icicle.’ My guess is that English speakers gradually lost sight of what gicel meant as an independent wordespecially in the phonetically reduced form that it developed to, in which the g came to be pronounced as a y—and therefore felt the need to prefix ice to it to make the meaning clearer.

And the connection to Spanish? There’s none to carámbano, the Spanish word for ‘icicle,’ but I was surprised some years ago when browsing the DRAE to discover that Spanish has borrowed iceberg from English. The definition in that dictionary is ‘Gran masa de hielo flotante, desgajada del polo, que sobresale en parte de la superficie del mar.’ There’s even an entry for la punta del iceberg, which Spanish uses in the same metaphorical way that English uses the tip of the iceberg. Of course iceberg is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to words that Spanish has borrowed from English in recent years.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


When we see a w in a Spanish word, we know that Spanish borrowed the word from another language. In the case of clown, which my dictionary indicates Spanish pronounces the same as English, the contributing language was indeed English, but clown isn’t native in English, either. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that it comes from a Germanic language and offers Scandinavian klunni ‘clumsy person’ as a possible source. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the spellings clowne and cloyne appeared in English in the 1560s, when the word meant ‘rustic, boor, peasant.’ Other possible relatives are Swedish kluns ‘a hard knob; a clumsy fellow,’ Danish klunt ‘log, block,’ and North Frisian klönne ‘clumsy person.’ Whatever the origin of clown, English has derived from it the adjective clownish and the abstract noun clowning. That last, which looks just like a present participle, reminds us that English has a lot of freedom to use a word as different parts of speech, so that clown can be not only a noun but also a verb, in which role it is often followed by around.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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