Eve, my asawa ‘esposa/wife,’ speaks Cebuano as her native language. Most readers of this column will never have heard of that language, so I’ll tell you that varieties of it are spoken in the central and southern Philippines, and that it probably has more native speakers than the better known (outside that country) Tagalog (the word is stressed on its middle syllable). Because Spain colonized the Philippines in the 1500s, over the next several centuries the native languages of the archipelago absorbed thousands of Spanish words, much as English borrowed heavily from French in the centuries after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
While reading an online Philippine newspaper some years ago, Eve came across the word tarantado, which she explained means ‘slow to understand, dull-witted, foolish, confused.’ The word was clearly taken from Spanish, but I couldn’t figure out what the original might be or have been (I say “have been” because in some cases Philippine languages preserve words that have fallen out of use in Spanish). At around the same time, by following the tag “etymology,” I happened across a blog that I inferred was written by a Filipino, so I took the opportunity to post a comment asking about tarantado. Mati, the writer of that blog, wrote back after doing some research:
When I asked around, people were certain that it was of Spanish origin but as to which word, they didn’t know. One source said it means “blunder head.” There was one that said it comes from “atarantado,” the past participle of “atarantar”. Now, how the a in “atarantado” was dropped is another thing. I don’t know who can trace it. I don’t know if this is of any worth to you but to us here–while “tarantado” means “stupid, foolish”–we also have another word, “taranta.” It means “panic, confusion.” I believe it has a stronger connection to the original meaning of “atarantar,” to daze.
The reason I hadn’t connected tarantado to atarantado, which seems such an obvious link, is simple: Spanish atarantado was as new a word to me as Cebuano tarantado. The next step was obviously to investigate the Spanish word. According to Guido Gómez de Silva, atarantado probably came from Old Italian attarentato, which he glossed as ‘aturdido; epiléptico,’ from the notion ‘aturdido por la picadura de una tarántula,’ which is to say ‘stunned by the bite of a tarantula.’ Attarentato would have been derived from taranta, a southern Italian form of tarantola, the standard Italian word for tarántula/tarantula (which is the Medieval Latin version of the Italian word). Italian tarantola had come from Taranto, the name of a city in southeastern Italy that was apparently home to its share of the large, hairy spiders.
Corresponding to the past participle atarantado, Spanish has all the other forms of the verb atarantar, whose meanings are ‘to daze, stun, dumbfound.’
© 2015 Steven Schwartzman