From ancient Greece through the American Revolution to the beginning of the American Civil War

Based on the Greek verb sassein (also sattein) that meant ‘to arm, to pack,’ the noun sagma (with stem sagmat-) meant ‘cargo, munitions,’ and by association also the ‘packsaddle’ used to transport cargo. The Romans, always great importers from Greece, packed sagma over into Latin with the sense ‘packsaddle.’ Spanish ultimately altered that to salma, which took on the specific sense of ‘a ton’ (sorry, pack animals). Latin sagma also passed through Hispanic Arabic and Mozárabe to become Spanish enjalma, which retains the ‘packsaddle’ sense that salma also once had but lost.

From sagma Late Latin created the adjective sagmārius ‘pertaining to a packsaddle or packhorse.’ That evolved in Spanish to somera, with a shift in meaning to ‘cada una de las dos piezas fuertes de madera en que se apoya todo el juego de la máquina antigua de imprimir’ [each of the two heavy wooden beams that supported the entire apparatus of an ancient printing press’]. The change in meaning was a metaphorical one, with the two timbers doing the sort of holding up of weight that a beast of burden does.

Most English speakers will be surprised to learn that in addition to the summer that’s a season there’s another summer that means, in the definitions of the American Heritage Dictionary: ‘a heavy horizontal timber that serves as a supporting beam, especially for the floor above; a lintel; a large, heavy stone usually set on the top of a column or pilaster to support an arch or lintel.’ This less-well-known summer came into English from sumer, the Anglo-Norman development of the *saumārius that Vulgar Latin had created from sagmārius.

In another line of development, Vulgar Latin *saumārius became Old French sommier ‘beast of burden.’ By metaphorical extension to something inanimate, the primary meaning in modern French has become ‘box spring; base of a bed.’ Spanish borrowed the word, along with those meanings, as somier. Old French sommier also gave rise to the alternate form *sommerier, which in turn led to the altered sommelier that meant ‘officer in charge of provisions, pack-animal driver.’ Over time the meaning shifted to something a bit more exalted; the Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines it as ‘a waiter, as in a club or restaurant, who is in charge of wines.’ That’s the sense in which English has borrowed the French word. Spanish borrowed it too, in the form sumiller, which could also mean ‘Jefe o superior en algunas oficinas y ministerios de palacio.’

In addition to *saumārius, Vulgar Latin created the longer *saumatārius; it evolved to the Old French sometier that meant ‘driver of a packhorse.’ Middle English carried that over as sumpter. Eventually the noun added the sense given in the 1828 version of Noah Webster’s dictionary: ‘a horse that carries clothes or furniture; a baggage-horse; usually called a pack-horse.’ Earlier, though, in the way that words for occupations like fisher, brewer, carpenter, hunter, and farmer became family names, so did sumpter. In the alternate spelling Sumter, the name came down to Thomas Sumter of South Carolina, who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Revolutionary War. He it was for whom the American military named Fort Sumter, which in 1861 saw the first battle in the American Civil War.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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samphire

In learning about the native plant that botanists categorize as Sarcocornia (previously Salicornia) pacifica recently, I noticed that a couple of its vernacular names are Pacific swampfire and Pacific samphire. The plant grows in saline marshes, so that accounted for the “swamp.” Some parts of the plant turn reddish, so I figured that color metaphorically became the “fire.” As I imagined it, samphire would have arisen as a faster, simpler pronunciation of swampfire.

So much for hypotheses: once I investigated, I found I had things backwards, because swampfire arose as a folk-etymological recasting of the opaque samphire. I’d gotten it partly right, though, because samphire did come about as a phonetically recast English version of the French name Saint Pierre. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the name, which originally applied to a Eurasian plant (hence the qualifier Pacific swampfire), came “from French (herbe de) Saint Pierre, (herb of) Saint Peter, after Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, a patron saint of fisherman (the plant being so called because it grows on rocks near the sea, the name perhaps also being influenced by French pierre, rock).”

The connections to Spanish, of course, are that French saint is Spanish santo (both from Latin sanctus ‘holy’), and French pierre is Spanish piedra (both from Latin petra, taken from Greek petrā ‘cliff, rock’). Relatives of the former include santificar/sanctify and santurrón/sanctimonious. Relatives of the latter include petrificar/petrify and petróleo/petroleum (literally ‘rock oil’).

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

grifo

When I bought a new faucet for my kitchen sink some years ago, I couldn’t help noticing that the box it came in was a sort of Rosetta stone, though with cardboard in lieu of the stone that would have made the container impractically heavy and expensive. The three kinds of writing on the box were not ancient Greek and two forms of Egyptian, but the modern languages English, Spanish, and French. For this blog’s audience I’ll forgo the French, but the English text identified the product as a “HighArc Kitchen Faucet” and the Spanish as a “Grifo de Cuello de Cisne.” I leave it to you to decide whether cuello de cisne ‘swan’s neck’ is a more poetic description than high-arc [which I’ve respelled]. I wasn’t familiar with grifo, but by context it had to mean ‘faucet.’ To my surprise, when I looked up the word I found that it’s the same grifo that originally meant and still means ‘griffin,’ which English also spells griffon and gryphon. The Spanish and English versions of the word ultimately trace back to grups, the ancient Greek name for the fabulous creature. As a refresher for you and me, here’s how Noah Webster defined griffon in his 1828 dictionary:

In the natural history of the ancients, an imaginary animal said to be generated between the lion and eagle. It is represented with four legs, wings and a beak, the upper part resembling an eagle, and the lower part a lion. This animal was supposed to watch over mines of gold and hidden treasures, and was consecrated to the sun. The figure of the griffon is seen on ancient medals, and is still borne in coat-armor. It is also an ornament of Greek architecture.

I proceeded to do an online search and turned up many images of griffons. I found that people have extended the use of the word to a type of vulture, which isn’t that much of a stretch, and also to a type of dog, which is quite a stretch. Apparently the curved shape of the mythological griffon’s eagle-like beak was what led Spanish to use grifo metaphorically for ‘a faucet.’ My faucet, with its cuello de cisne, added a different bird to the mix.

While English doesn’t use griffin as a verb and hasn’t made a verb like *griffinize from it, Spanish has used grifo in its original meaning of a mythical creature to create grifarse, which means ‘to rise up, rear up, stand up.’ The DRAE adds two senses of that reflexive verb that have developed in Costa Rica: ‘to get goose bumps; to get high on marijuana.’ It seems that the Costa Ricans have rich imaginations indeed.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

[This is an updated version of a post from 2010.]

More stunning tarantula-related matters

The last post discussed a word used in the Philippines, tarantado, which had been shortened slightly from Spanish atarantado ‘stunned, dazed.’ One question raised but not answered in that post was how atarantado lost its first syllable when it passed into the languages of the Philippines. Linguists have a name for that process: the dropping of one or more sounds as the beginning of a word is called aféresis/aph(a)eresis, a Greek word that means literally ‘a taking away.’ In the case of atarentado, the word stress falls three syllables after the initial a-, which is therefore weakly pronounced; the next step was for Filipinos to drop it altogether. (For a Spanish example of aféresis, consider how ahora gave rise to the shortened ora; for an English example, consider how a raccoon has become for some speakers a coon.)

Yesterday’s post didn’t explain apheresis, but it did explain that Old Italian attarentato, the predecessor of Spanish atarentado, developed from the notion of a person being stunned by the bite of a tarantula, which is a type of large, hairy spider that had previously gotten its name from the southeastern Italian city of Taranto. The inhabitants of that city must have had vivid imaginations, because Taranto also lent its name to the condition called tarantismo/tarantism. A little over a century ago, the aptly named Century Dictionary defined the term this way: ‘A dancing mania; specifically and originally, a dancing mania of the south of Italy in those who had been bitten by a tarantula, or thought they had been, and their imitators.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary had this definition: ‘A nervous affection producing melancholy, stupor, and an uncontrollable desire to dance. It was supposed to be produced by the bite of the tarantula, and considered to be incapable of cure except by protracted dancing to appropriate music.’

The type of rapid dance that Italians from the 1400s through the 1600s believed could cure tarantism came to be known, appropriately, as a tarantella. Spanish and English have borrowed the Italian word, with Spanish spelling it tarantela. In the centuries since then, the connection to tarantulas has largely been lost, and anyone can compose, play, or dance a tarantella.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

More day to dawn

Readers may recognize the title of today’s post from the poetic ending of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” What dawns in this column is more etymology: in particular, I’d like to continue with the previous post by looking at a few more words that begin with eo-, from Greek eos ‘dawn,’ a descendant of the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine.’ As noted last time, scientists have coined words that use eo- in the sense ‘very early, primitive.’

A raptor is ‘a person or animal that carries off another,’ so an eoraptor, which has been translated as ‘dawn plunderer,’ is the name given to ‘a certain type of very early dinosaur that lived about 230 million years ago, toward the end of the Triassic Period.’ Wikipedia articles describing eoraptor exist in Spanish and English.

Based on Greek lithos ‘stone,’ an eolito/eolith is ‘a stone from the dawn of time.’ Scholars who specialize in ancient history began using the term in the late 1800s to designate what they believed to be very crude artifacts made by early humans. A more recent view, however, is that such stone pieces were formed by natural rather than human processes. Wikipedia articles describing eoliths exist in Spanish and English.

In contrast to those two words, the scientific term eosina/eosin was given its name based on the colors of the sky at dawn. As the English-language Wikipedia article notes: “Eosin is a fluorescent red dye resulting from the action of bromine on fluorescein. It can be used to stain cytoplasm, collagen and muscle fibers for examination under the microscope. Structures that stain readily with eosin are termed eosinophilic.” There is also a Spanish-language Wikipedia article about eosina, and the Spanish equivalent of eosinophilic is eosinófilo.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

eos

The Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine’ gave rise not only to English east and Easter and Latin aurora, but also to Greek eos ‘dawn.’ From that comes the eo- that appears as a first element in several learned coinages, where it means ‘dawn’ in the figurative sense of ‘earliest, most primitive.’ One such coinage is eohippus, or ‘dawn horse,’ a name given to the earliest distinguishable ancestor of the modern horse. The eohippus (for which Spanish has the additional form eohipo) was originally the size of a dog; it developed in the Americas and ultimately died out there, but not before its larger descendants had colonized other continents, from which they were reintroduced into the Americas beginning at the end of the 1400s.

Another eo- word, one whose second element comes from Greek kainos ‘recent,’ is Eoceno/Eocene, which the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica identified this way: “in geology, the name suggested by Sir C. Lyell in 1833 for the lower subdivision of the rocks of the Tertiary Era. The term was intended to convey the idea that this was the period which saw the dawn of the recent or existing forms of life, because it was estimated that among the fossils of this period only 31% (roughly a third) of the species are still living. Since Lyell’s time much has been learned about the fauna and flora of the period, and many palaeontologists doubt if any of the Eocene species are still extant, unless it be some of the lowest forms of life. Nevertheless the name is a convenient one and is in general use. The Eocene as originally defined, however, was not long left intact, for E. Beyrich in 1854 proposed the term ‘Oligocene’ for the upper portion, and later, in 1874, K. Schimper suggested ‘Paleocene’ as a separate appellation for the lower portion. The Oligocene division has been generally accepted as a distinct period, but ‘Paleocene’ is not so widely used.”

Today’s dictionaries show Eoceno/Eocene referring to ‘the second epoch of the Tertiary Period.’ (It’s as if scientists instituted something akin to a permanent Daylight Saving Time for the Eocene, bumping it up one level.)

Users of Canon single-lens reflex (SLR) digital cameras may wonder if EOS, the designation for those models, was taken from Greek eos, but the name arose as an English-language acronym for ‘Electro-Optical System.’ As a recent afterthought, however, Canon took advantage of the Greek word’s meaning and reinterpreted EOS as ‘Goddess of the Dawn’ in its online Canon Camera Museum.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Several unexpected answers

The etymology of the English word answer answers several questions about related words in English and Spanish. Answer, with its now-silent w, is descended from Old English andswaru, whose d is not only no longer pronounced but also not even retained in the current spelling. The swaru in the old form of the compound, which has become modern English swear, goes back to the Indo-European root *swer- ‘to talk, speak.’ The first element in Old English andswaru traces back to Indo-European *ant-, which meant literally ‘front, forehead,’ but which led to the notion of confronting something, which is to say turning against it. We see that sense in the Greek descendant anti, which Spanish and English (and other languages) now use as a prefix in so many words. To answer, then, is literally ‘to speak back,’ originally as a rebuttal, but then more generally ‘to respond [to an assertion or question].’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

histéresis/hysteresis

I recently came across the word hysteresis, in which English puts secondary stress on the first syllable and primary stress on the third. In contrast, as the written accent in histéresis tells us, Spanish stresses the second syllable. Regardless, the discrepancy in stress between the two languages should occasion no stress in us and be no cause for histeria/hysteria, a similar-looking word that is likewise of Greek origin but is otherwise unrelated. (This is a good time to remind ourselves yet again that not all that glitters is gold.)

Histéresis/hysteresis is a scientific term that means ‘the lagging of an effect behind its cause.’ Wikipedia puts it more technically: ‘Hysteresis is the time-based dependence of a system’s output on current and past inputs.’ In doing some looking, I didn’t find examples of the term in climatology, but hysteresis would seem to fit the familiar phenomenon of the seasons lagging behind the sun; for example, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest elevation at the summer solstice near the end of June, but the hottest days in the season don’t normally occur until August.

But we’re not here to discuss science. According to Wikipedia, the term hysteresis was coined around 1890 by Sir James Alfred Ewing to describe the behaviour of magnetic materials.’ Ewing took the word from ancient Greek husterēsis, which meant ‘a shortcoming.’ That word had been built on husteros, meaning ‘late,’ which the American Heritage Dictionary traces back to Indo-European *ud-tero, a comparative form of the *ud- that meant both ‘up’ and ‘out.’ Greek husteros, therefore, had originally conveyed the sense ‘farther out [in time].’

Although Indo-European *ud- seems to have left no native descendants in Latin (and therefore none in Spanish either), it produced native English out, which stands alone as a preposition and adverb, and serves as a particle in phrasal verbs like make out, figure out, get out, check out, point out, drop out. Out also appears in compounds like outlaw, outlandish, outpouring, outlier, outsized, output, and outline. Out may be short, but it’s an out-and-out useful word in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Footloose in the Antipodes

I was recently looking at a blog by a woman in Australia who enjoys hiking, and a would-be title for a post popped into my head: “Footloose in the Antipodes.” For inhabitants of Europe and North America, the Antipodes (note the capital letter) are Australia and New Zealand. More generally, antipodes (note the lower case) are two places opposite each other on the globe. Spanish similarly has antípoda, whose written accent coincidentally tells us that the four-syllable English antipodes is likewise stressed on its second syllable. In terms of semantics, however, Spanish antípoda, according to the DRAE, ‘Se dice de cualquier habitante del globo terrestre con respecto a otro que more en lugar diametralmente opuesto,’ so the Spanish word refers to the inhabitants of opposite places rather than to the places themselves. A little more loosely, the adjective antípoda can mean ‘que se contrapone totalmente a alguien o algo,’ which English might translate as ‘contrarian.’ In fact the DRAE explains that the adverbial phrase en los (or las) antípodas means ‘en lugar o posición radicalmente opuesta o contraria.’

In terms of etymology, antípoda/antipodes comes via Latin from the plural of Greek antipous, a compound meaning ‘opposite feet.’ I know, it would take a bowlegged giant standing astride our earthly globe for the geographical meaning to make sense, but we’ll have to cut the ancient Greeks some slack. We’ll also have to point out that Greek pous was the cognate of Latin pes (and therefore Spanish pie) as well as native English foot, with all of them descended from the Indo-European root *ped- that meant ‘foot.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

cactus

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

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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