Up

Something can be called high only with respect to something else that’s lower. Something can be called big only with respect to something else that’s smaller. Something can be called good only with respect to something else that’s worse. Those are examples of what I’ve come to call the Duality Principle. The little English word up exemplifies that principle, as etymology makes clear. Up has cognates in the Germanic languages (for example Norwegian opp, Icelandic upp, Danish op, German auf). Going back a good deal further, we find that the Indo-European original was *upo, which could mean—are you ready for a hefty dose of the Duality Principle?—not only ‘under’ and its opposite ‘over,’ but even ‘up from under.’

A variant form of the Indo-European root with an initial s- gave rise to Latin sub, which largely inherited the ‘under’ sense of its ancestor, as we see in many compounds taken from Latin. A few examples are submarino/submarine, subterráneo/subterranean, and sumergir/submerge. Nevertheless, in the familiar Spanish compound subir, which is sub+ir, the sense is ‘to go up [from under].’ If you’d like to read more about subir, you can check out a post from the first year of this blog.

Only an advanced foreign student of Spanish is likely to encounter the inherited (as opposed to borrowed) descendant of Latin sub, which is so. It’s no longer a living word but still appears in set phrases like so pena de ‘under pain of, at the risk of,’ and so color de and so pretexto de, both of which mean ‘on the pretext of.’

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

entender

Anyone who has studied French and Spanish soon comes to learn that entendre and entender are faux amis (amigos falsos/false friends). The two verbs are etymologically the same, yet the primary French sense is ‘to hear’ while the primary Spanish sense is ‘to understand.’ Let’s go back to Latin to see how the words developed. The main element was Latin tendere, the source of Spanish tender and English tend. Also from that root, by the way, is tienda/tent, in which some sort of material is stretched out over a rigid frame. That makes sense, you see, because Latin tendere had as its basic meanings ‘to stretch, stretch out, distend, extend.’ Notice that those last two English definitions likewise come from compounds of tendere.

Yet another Latin compound was intendere, where the prefix in meant not its usual ‘in’ but rather ‘to’ or towards.’ Definitions of intendere in Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary include ‘to stretch out, stretch forth, extend; to strain towards; to turn towards, direct towards.’ In particular, the phrase intendere animum meant ‘to direct one’s thoughts or attention to.’ Often the purpose of directing one’s thoughts or attention to something is to understand it, and so Spanish entender took on the meaning ‘to understand.’ French entendre also once had the sense ‘to understand,’ but eventually a particular way of directing one’s attention came to dominate the verb’s meaning, namely to pay attention by listening. That semantic drift was aided by the fact that French ouïr, the cognate of Spanish oír ‘to hear,’ gradually fell out of use, and entendre filled the gap.

Even so, in some French expressions the verb entendre retains the sense ‘understand.’ For example, a malentendu is ‘a misunderstanding.’ Joan Corominas points out that in the 1800s Spanish copied malentendido from the French noun, and he notes that the word was originally looked down on as a Gallicism. English did its own related borrowing from French with double entendre, which is ‘a phrase that can be understood in two ways, one of them often being risqué.’

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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

want

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

Weird

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

Levirato

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

Tidy

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.’

Behave

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.’

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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