To give is to receive

The previous post talked about some words derived from the Latin verb habitāre that meant ‘inhabit, dwell.’ If we go farther back, we find habitāre itself was a frequentative verb that the Romans created from the stem of habitus, the past participle of the important verb habēre ‘to possess, have, hold’ that became Spanish haber but that in spite of the striking coincidence in form and meaning is completely unrelated to English have. No kidding. If you’d like more information about English have and its origins, you can check out a post that appeared here in 2014.

If we push even further back, we find that Latin habēre descended from the Indo-European root *ghabh- (or *ghebh-), which, as a good example of the duality principle, could mean both ‘to receive’ and ‘to give.’ There can be no receiving if someone isn’t simultaneously giving. The ‘receiving’ end of the spectrum came down into Latin habēre. Then there was a further shift in semantics: after you’ve received something, you have it. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘giving’ sense of Indo-European *ghebh- is apparent in native English give and the corresponding noun gift, which came from Old Norse. There’s also forgive, a compound of give.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


The common English verb want may not seem to have any relatives in Spanish, but there are some. The first step in finding connections is to realize that the ‘desire’ sense of want isn’t the original one. The original meaning is still alive in the expression to want for that means ‘to lack.’ Lacking something implies being in need, and that need creates a desire for the thing. So it was that the meaning of want expanded to include the ‘desire’ sense that has become the predominant one.

As basic as English want is, the word came into the language from Old Norse vanta. The American Heritage Dictionary traces that back to a suffixed form of the Indo-European root euə-, which meant ‘to leave, abandon,’ and which had derivatives expressing the notions ‘lacking, empty.’ One native English derivative is wane. The Latin derivative vānus, meaning ’empty,’ is the source of Spanish vano and, via Old French, English vain.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Dum spiro spero

The word-playing Latin motto Dum spīro spēro means “As long as I breathe, I hope.” Spanish speakers have only to add a prothetic e- to that last verb to convert it to its modern descendant espero, the first-person singular present-tense form of esperar ‘to hope.’ The corresponding modern Spanish noun is esperanza, created with a suffix, in contrast to the simple Latin noun spēs.

The opposite of Spanish esperar is desesperar, which finds its counterpart in English despair, taken from Old French. Spanish also used to have the shorter desperar, which survives in its past participle desperado, which English has borrowed alongside the more common doublet desperate, borrowed from Latin dēspērātus.

Back on the positive side, Latin prosperāre ‘to cause a thing to succeed’ has given us prosperar/prosper and the corresponding adjective próspero/prosperous. And therein lies a clue to a native English connection that few people would suspect, primarily because of a semantic change. The Indo-European root underlying all these words of ultimately Latin origin was *spē-, which meant ‘to thrive, prosper.’ That root gave rise to Old English spēd ‘success,’ the forerunner of the modern form speed. Even in Old English one sense of the word had been ‘swiftness,’ presumably because people who are quick to follow up on opportunities or who work rapidly are more likely to succeed. One survivor of that sense of speed is the compound interjection Godspeed, meaning ‘may God allow (you) to prosper.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The Wikipedia article on psychology includes this:

In 2010, a group of researchers reported a systemic bias in psychology studies towards WEIRD (“western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic”) subjects. Although only 1/8 people worldwide fall into the WEIRD classification, the researchers claimed that 60–90% of psychology studies are performed on WEIRD subjects. The article gave examples of results that differ significantly between WEIRD subjects and tribal cultures, including the Müller-Lyer illusion.

Of course the acronym WEIRD plays off the normal English word weird, meaning ‘strange, unusual, odd.’ Most native English speakers don’t know that that wasn’t the original sense of the word, but the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth provide a clue to the earlier meaning. Those three characters were the Fates, women who could tell how the future would turn out. In fact the sense of weird turns on that notion of turning out, because the underlying Indo-European root *wer- meant ‘to turn.’

Another descendant of that Indo-European root was the Latin verb for ‘to turn,’ vertere, with past participle versus (which English uses unchanged as a preposition meaning ‘turned against’). It turns out that Spanish and English have acquired many words from that Latin verb, some examples being invertir/invert; revertir/revert; pervertir/pervert; convertir/convert; conversación/conversation, in which talk turns back and forth between two people; aniversario/anniversary, which we celebrate each year when the earth returns to the same place in its orbit; and versión/version, which is the way something has turned out after changes have been made to an earlier stage.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Sí and she

Who would’ve thought that Spanish and English she, similar in sound but so far apart in their meanings, are etymologically related? In spite of your skepticism, así es, that’s the way it is.

To see the connection, we go back, as is often the case in these articles, to Indo-European. In particular, we start with the Indo-European root *so-, meaning ‘this’ or ‘that’ and serving as the base for nominative-case forms of the demonstrative pronoun. A suffixed variant of that root gave rise to Latin sīc, a little word for which Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gave a lot of translations: ‘so, thus, in this or that manner, in such a manner, in the same way or manner, in like manner, likewise, to this or that extent or degree, to such a degree, in this or that state or condition, in such a condition .’ As Latin evolved to Spanish, sīc lost its final consonant and became , the etymological sense of which is ‘[it’s] so.’ We’ve borrowed the Latin adverb in formal writing to indicate that something we’re quoting that has a mistake in it was that way in the original. For instance, if I were to quote a recent headline from the Austin American-Statesman, I’d write: “Texas has so far failed to elect a Hispanic women [sic] to Congress.”

The Indo-European demonstrative *so- also gave rise to Old English sēo, the source of modern English she, which is therefore indeed a relative of Spanish . From that basic Spanish adverb comes the compound así ‘so, thus, in this way,’ which not coincidentally appeared in this article’s second sentence.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The Spanish word levirato and its English counterpart levirate are hardly common words, even among the highly literate. The word designates a practice among the ancient Hebrews: if a married man died before having children, the man’s brother would marry the widow in an effort to continue the dead man’s family line. The term comes from Latin lēvir, meaning ‘husband’s brother,’ a word descended from the synonymous Indo-European root *daiwer-.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


No matter how long we inhabit our native language, there are still moments when we perceive something we’d never noticed before. One day last month I used the word tidy, and suddenly a question came to mind: might it be the case, I asked myself, that in spite of an apparent semantic mismatch, tidy comes from tide in the same morphological way that juicy obviously comes from juice and flaky from flake? I felt I was onto something because I already knew that the current meaning of tide as ‘a periodic rising and falling of the sea’ is a limited survival of the much broader senses the word used to have: ‘time; period; season.’ For example, in 1596 Edmund Spenser wrote in “Prothalamion”:

They two, forth pacing to the river’s side,
Received those two fair brides, their love’s delight;
Which, at th’ appointed tide,
Each one did make his bride….

Tidy was indeed the adjective corresponding to tide in that early sense, and the original meaning of tidy was, in the definition of the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary: ‘Being in proper time; timely; seasonable; favorable; as, tidy weather.’ From that developed the senses ‘Arranged in good order; orderly; appropriate; neat; kept in proper and becoming neatness, or habitually keeping things so; as, a tidy lass; their dress is tidy; the apartments are well furnished and tidy.’

To make a connection to Spanish, we have to go much farther back than early modern English. The American Heritage Dictionary traces tide to the Indo-European root *dā- ‘to divide,’ which we can see in the old sense of ‘season,’ which is a division of the year. The AHD finds in the suffixed Indo-European form *dā-mo‑ the possible notion of ‘division of the people,’ as reflected in ancient Greek dēmos, which meant ‘people; land.’ From that we have borrowed words like democracia/democracy ‘rule by the people’; demagogo/demagogue ‘someone who stirs up the people’; and endémico/endemic ‘occurring in a certain region.’


Due to differences in pronunciation and meaning, few native English speakers recognize that the verb behave is a compound of have. To behave is ‘to “have” yourself in a certain way,’ which is to say ‘to “hold” yourself in a certain way,’ which is to say ‘to comport yourself in a certain way.’ The failure to recognize the connection between behave and have is a sin of omission, but the widely held assumption that English have is a cognate of Spanish haber is a sin of commission: it’s a “sin” because there is no etymological connection between the two words, in spite of their similar appearance and meaning.

As proof, we remind ourselves of Indo-European sound correspondences. In particular, an initial h- in native English words corresponds to an initial c- (representing a k sound) in Latin words. For example, Latin cord- (and therefore the suffixed Spanish corazón) is the cognate of English heart, and English head is the cognate of Latin caput (which is why the capital is the “head” city of a state or country). Candidates for a Latin cognate of English have are limited to words beginning with c-, and the right one turns out to be Latin capere, which meant ‘to take, seize, grasp, grab hold of.’ While the semantics aren’t exact, the connection is that in order to have something we must literally or figuratively take hold of it.

So now the question is whether Latin capere left a Spanish descendant (which would therefore be the cognate of English have). That descendant turns out to be the verb caber, which has undergone a further change in meaning to ‘to fit.’ Something of that sense was already present in Latin capere, whose secondary meanings included ‘assume, adopt, contain, take in,’ and especially ‘to be large enough for.’

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


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

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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