Some stunning observations

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


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


Oruga, the Spanish word for ‘caterpillar,’ developed from the synonymous Latin noun ūrūca. That Latin noun had another form, ērūca, and another meaning as the name for a certain plant in the cabbage (crucifer) family. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that it was “perhaps… so called from its hairy stems resembling caterpillars, or from the fact that cruciferous vegetables are often infested with caterpillars.” One name for that edible plant in English is colewort, the first part of which is a cognate of Spanish col ‘cabbage.’ Various other English names for the plant show an etymological connection to Latin ērūcarucola, rucoli, roquette, (salad) rocket, and rugula. If that last seems almost familiar, it’s probably because of its better-known form in American English, arugula. Apparently that version of the word came from a dialect of Italian, as opposed to the rucola in standard Italian. Notice how standard Italian retained the k sound between vowels in ērūca, while the dialect picked up the voicing of the vowels that surrounded the k and turned it into a g sound. Spanish did the same thing as ūrūca became oruga.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The word svelte is rare in English because of its sv spelling, and the sb in the Spanish equivalent esbelto is only somewhat less rare (there’s esbirro ‘henchman’ and esbozo ‘sketch’, for example). Esbelto/svelte, which means ‘gracefully slender, slim’, was borrowed from Italian svelto, the past participle of the verb svellere ‘to stretch out’. That verb developed from Vulgar Latin *exvellere, where the familiar prefix ex- meant ‘out of’, and Latin vellere meant, with respect to an animal, ‘to pluck, pull out, remove the hair or feathers’.

You may be hard-pressed to think of any relatives, but if I tell you the past participle of Latin vellere was vulsus, you can easily see the relationship to the familiar words convulsar/convulse and revulsión/revulsion. There’s also the less-common evulsión/evulsion, which means ‘the act of plucking out’, and which contains the same two semantic elements found in esbelto/svelte. It’s fair to say that some people find evulsion a cause of revulsion.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

oregano and pizza

Growing up in New York, I (and maybe most people there) associated oregano with pizza. In fact oregano was the pizza seasoning par excellence, a taste of Old Italy—or so I thought. Imagine my decades-belated surprise, then, when I learned that English took oregano not from Italian but from Spanish. Spanish got orégano from Latin orīganum, which the Romans had borrowed from Greek orīganon.

With pizza, which Spanish and English have borrowed intact, we’re in for a second surprise: that seemingly most Italian of words actually has a Germanic origin. According to the 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, the Italian word whose senses were ‘pie, tart’ and ultimately ‘pizza’ is akin to Old High German bizzo and pizzo, which meant ‘bite, morsel.’ It’s easy to see the resemblance of the German forms to their native English cognate bit, which, coming as it does from the verb bite, is etymologically ‘a little piece bitten off.’

©2014 Steven Schwartzman


In the book Where Mathematics Comes From, by Lakoff and Núñez, I came across this sentence:

All human beings, regardless of culture or education, can instantly tell at a glance whether there are one, two, or three objects before them. This ability is called subitizing, from the Latin word for “sudden.”

Spanish speakers are likely to recognize in subitizing the word súbito, which developed from Latin subitum, the past participle of subīre, the predecessor of Spanish subir. Now, the fact that subir means ‘to go up’ is often puzzling to English speakers who learn Spanish, and perhaps to Spanish speakers who think about it, because we’re used to associating sub with ‘under,’ as in submarino/submarine and subterráneo/subterranean. The explanation is that *upo, the Indo-European ancestor of Latin sub, actually meant ‘up from under’ as well as ‘under,’ As a result, Latin subīre meant not only ‘to come or go under,’ but also ‘to come or go up to’ and ‘to spring up.’ It’s that sense of springing up, which of course takes place quickly, that gave Latin subito, and therefore its Spanish descendant súbito, the sense of ‘sudden(ly).’

Alongside subitus Latin created the longer adjective subitāneus, which Spanish has borrowed as subitáneo, and which the DRAE defines (somewhat circularly, because a definition isn’t supposed to use another form of the word being defined) as ‘Que sucede súbitamente.’ Vulgar Latin turned subitāneus into the slightly shorter *subitānus; that evolved to Old French sodain, which Middle English borrowed, and which has become sudden in modern English.

Let me close with a little coincidence. While I was writing the first part of this post on April 25th, I walked into another room where the television was on and tuned to a news channel. As I kept walking, I glanced at the television screen and saw video of a crowd in Rome that had gathered early for the canonization two days later of Pope John Paul and Pope John XXIII. One of the people in the crowd was holding a sign saying “SANTO SUBITO.” Though you might be tempted to translates that as ‘sudden saint,’ in Italian subito has taken on the sense ‘immediately, right now.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Traduttore traditore, part 2

In the last post and this one we’re looking at Spanish and English connections to the two words in the Italian aphorism that says “[A] translator [is a] betrayer.” Italian traditore corresponds closely to Latin traditor, the agent noun derived from the verb tradere. That Latin compound was made up of trans ‘across’ and dare ‘to give, the obvious ancestor of Spanish dar. Latin tradere had various meanings, the literal and neutral one being ‘to give over, deliver.’ From that came the meaning ‘to hand over,’ whether in the positive senses of ‘entrust, confide’ or the negative ones of  ‘to give up or surrender treacherously, to betray.’ In fact the -tray in English betray comes, via Old French trair, from that sense of Latin tradere. Also via French is traitor, the cognate of Italian traditore. Spanish likewise has its cognate, traidor. The corresponding abstract noun is traición ‘betrayal,’ and from that Spanish has created the new verb traicionar ‘to betray.’ Although modern French has trahir (with a silent h added to the spelling to indicate that the a and the are i in separate syllables), Spanish has lost what would have been *trair, probably because its conjugated forms would have been confused with those of the unrelated traer.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

Traduttore traditore

The title of this post is an Italian aphorism that says “[A] translator [is a] betrayer.” The idea, of course, is that any translation from one language into another is bound to change features of the original: the nuance and cultural connotation of a word, the idiomatic sense of a phrase, the way lines of poetry rhyme, etc. In this post and the next, let’s look at some of the connections that traduttore and traditore have to Spanish and English.

Italian traduttore corresponds to Latin traductor, the agent noun derived from the verb traducere, which Spanish speakers recognize as the ancestor of the little-changed traducir. The Latin verb was a compound of trans ‘across’ and ducere ‘to lead,’ so a translator metaphorically leads a text across from one language to another.

The Romans often used traducere literally and neutrally, but they also added a cluster of negative senses: ‘to lead along, exhibit as a spectacle, make a show of, expose to public ridicule, dishonor, disgrace, degrade.’ When English first “traduced” traducere into traduce, it retained the various meanings of the original, including ‘to translate,’ but that sense has been lost, so only negative ones survive. In modern English, traduce means ‘to expose to contempt or shame; to represent as blamable; to calumniate; to vilify; to defame.’ With Spanish traducir things are reversed, and the senses stray only as far from ‘translate’ as ‘convert’ and ‘interpret.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


On my other blog this week I showed a picture of a bluebell gentian bud and described it as svelte. Now, English isn’t exactly swimming in words that begin with sv-, so it’s hardly a surprise to find that svelte was borrowed from another language. In this case the language was Italian, where the form of the word was svelto. It was the past participle of svellere ‘to stretch out,’ so something svelte was conceived as having been stretched out and therefore made slender. We no longer require there to have been any stretching, and svelte is now a good description for something or someone that is slender, graceful, lithe, stylish. From the notion of ‘stylish’ English has added the secondary senses ‘suave, urbane, sophisticated.’

Italian svellere developed from Vulgar Latin *exvellere, a form that put back the original x in classical Latin evellere, a phonetically simplified compound made from ex- ‘out’ and vellere ‘to pluck, pull out, tear out.’ Latin evellere therefore originally meant the same as the basic verb, though with some added emphasis on the ‘out.’ By the time of Italian svellere, the semantics had shifted from ‘pluck out’ to ‘pull’ to ‘stretch out.’

Spanish, which can’t abide s followed by a consonant at the beginning of a word*, also borrowed Italian svelto but added its standard supporting vowel, the result being esbelto. The corresponding abstract noun is esbeltez, for which English uses svelteness.


Position makes a big difference. Within a word, Spanish sometimes allows surprisingly many consonants in a cluster, as we see in a word like construcción.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Sons and daughters

When I used to teach mathematics I made a point, wherever I legitimately could, of introducing students to the Fibonacci numbers. The Medieval Italian mathematician for whom that sequence of numbers is named was Leonardo da Pisa, or ‘Leonard from Pisa,’ but Fibonacci was his patronymic: Fibonacci—analyzable in modern Italian as figlio di Bonaccio—means ‘son of Bonaccio.’ The Fi- of Fibonacci is from Latin filius ‘son,’ as we recognize in our borrowed adjective filial; someone who is afiliado/affiliated to a company is like a son to that fatherly company.

Latin filius evolved in Spanish, following the f –> h and li —> j transformations peculiar to that language, to the modern form hijo, but Spanish had earlier chosen not to followed through with patronymics of the Fibonacci type. Spanish preferred to go with family names that end in a descendant of the Latin genitive case, which indicated possession, and in this case descent; examples are Hernández, López, González, as explained in an earlier article in this column. In contrast to Spanish, Old French did follow through with the pattern seen in an Italian name like Fibonacci. Latin filius ‘son’ led in Old French to a subject case with the forms fils and fiz, where the letter z often represented, as it still does in German, a ts sound. And now you can understand English and Irish family names that came from Norman French and Anglo-French, names like Fitzgerald, Fitzwilliam, Fitzpatrick, and Fitzmorris, which mean respectively ‘son of Gerald,’ ‘son of William,’ ‘ son of Patrick,’ and ‘son of Morris.’

With all that emphasis on ‘sons of,’ it’s only fair to note that all these family names apply to daughters as well as sons. And, as I lightheartedly used to say to my students, if Fibonacci had had a daughter she could have been called Fifi Bonacci.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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