cavilar/cavil

Spanish cavilar and English cavil both trace back to Latin cavillārī, whose meanings Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gives as: ‘to practise jeering or mocking; to censure, criticise; to satirize in jest or earnest, to jest, etc.’ That dictionary then adds the extended senses that are the only ones English has borrowed: ‘to reason captiously, to use sophisms, to quibble.’ By contrast, in Spanish cavilar the meaning has turned positive: ‘to think about something intently or profoundly.’ It no longer matches any of the original Latin senses, but we won’t cavil about that turn toward the positive.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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bajada

Last week in a blog post about rocks on the coast of Cornwall I came across the word bajada. I’d never seen it used in English, so I checked and found that sure enough, some English dictionaries do include it. For example, dictionary.com, based on the Random House Dictionary, defines the term as ‘an alluvial plain formed at the base of a mountain by the coalescing of several alluvial fans.’ That dictionary even gives a good etymology: “1865-70, Americanism; < Spanish: slope, swoop, orig. feminine past participle of bajar to descend < Vulgar Latin *bassiāre, derivative of Late Latin bassus short, low. The adjective bassus led not only to Spanish bajo but also, via Old French, to English base in the senses ‘of low morals; of low quality.’ In addition, Late Latin bassus is the source of the English bass that means ‘having a low pitch or deep tone.’ A conjecture basing the English and Spanish noun base ‘the lowest part’ on the same Late Latin bassus turns out to be false; that base goes back to Greek basis.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

The vocabularily delicious “advectitious”

Several times in this column I’ve talked about the vagaries of Internet searches. One close encounter occurred when I went to books.google.com, typed in advectitious, and was asked whether I really meant adventitious. I’ve got nothing against adventitious—some of my most treasured finds on the Internet and elsewhere are adventicios/adventitious—but I really did mean advectitious, a word I’d just come across for the first time.

The root is vect-, from the past participle of the Latin verb vehere that meant ‘to carry, to bring.’ Related words are vector, literally ‘a carrier’; and convección/convection, which is ‘a process of transfer or transmission, as of heat or electricity, by means of currents in liquids or gases,’ e.g. in a convection oven.

The prefix in advectitious is the Latin ad that meant ‘to,’ just like its Spanish descendant a (which also can have the same sense as its native English cognate at). With reference to a location or system or style under discussion, something advectitious has been ‘carried to’ or ‘brought to’ it from a place where it is normally found; the advectitious thing is usually considered inappropriate in the new location. For example, writing in 1904, American architect Joy Wheeler Dow said in her book American Renaissance:

In my own very limited scope of usefulness, I am quite willing to confess that I have never bothered about style, and do not consider that I have any worth mentioning; although, I suppose, an occasional architect is annoyed past endurance by somebody who comes with an illustration of a particular piece of my work which has appeared in the magazines, requesting that my style be copied. Of course, it is not my style that is desired, but the expression of Anglo-Saxon home feeling as opposed to whatever is advectitious—out of place there—however correct academically, and according to the rules of harmony, good form or anything else you choose to call it.

Spanish speakers seem to have avoided importing *advecticioso into their language, where it might well be advectitious. Although advectitious has existed in English, it certainly isn’t common now. It’s one of those words that turn up in large dictionaries but rarely make their way outside them, like the rhyming deglutitious, satellitious, and even—tra la!—tralatitious.

While Spanish lacks the adjective *advecticioso, it does have the noun advección, which means ‘the action or effect of carrying or dragging something.’ In particular, as science uses the word, advección/advection is ‘the [usually horizontal] movement of a mass of fluid.’ Local weather, for example, changes after the advection of warm or cold air into the region. Corresponding to that noun is advectivo/advective, which we can’t help noticing is an adjetivo/adjective.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Tú and thou

The Spanish second-person-singular familiar subject pronoun has as its native English cognate thou. The object forms of the pronoun match up as well: te in Spanish, thee in English. The corresponding possessive adjectives are Spanish tu and English thy. All the English forms are obsolete but survive in old versions of the Bible and in other literature and documents that people still read. Or maybe “obsolete” is too strong a word because modern writers sometimes resort to the old forms to give their words an archaic feel. For example, Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on the Wire,” written in the 1960s, includes the lines “I have saved all my ribbons for thee” and “I will make it all up to thee.”

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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

escudriñar

The Spanish verb escudriñar means ‘to examine carefully.’ Based on that definition and the sound of escudriñar, an English speaker can probably figure out that the related English word is scrutinize. The Spanish and English verbs are based on the Latin noun scrūtinium, which meant ‘a search, inquiry, investigation.’ That noun had been created from the verb scrūtārī ‘to search, examine.’ It in turn had been based on the noun scrūta, which surprisingly meant ‘old or broken stuff, trash.’ In ancient times, poor people picked through trash, just as poor people still do today, looking for usable things. The trash is long gone, etymologically speaking, and only the notion of looking carefully has survived in escudriñar/scrutinize. And speaking of surviving, notice that the original order of the Latin consonants persists in English scrutinize, while Spanish escudriñar shows a metathesis of the r.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Descendants of Latin virga

The Latin noun virga meant, as defined in Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, ‘a slender green branch, a twig, sprout, switch, rod.’ From the Latin word came Spanish verga, which is little changed in form and which retains the already mentioned meanings of the Latin word. The Romans metaphorically applied virga to ‘a streak, stripe in the heavens; a water-gall.’ I’d not heard of a water-gall, but it apparently means the same thing that virga does in the use that modern climatologists have put it to, and that the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘wisps of precipitation streaming from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground.’

A Latin Dictionary is a work of the Victorian period, so its authors were squeamish about glossing another sense the Romans had transferred to virga; Lewis and Short defined that meaning of the Latin noun by using more Latin: ‘Genitalium, = membrum virile.’ Not only has Spanish retained the anatomical sense in verga, but the DRAE even lists it first among the meanings it gives. Through the word’s French cognate, English has acquired verge, whose meanings include: ‘a rod, wand, or staff carried as an emblem of authority or office; the spindle of a balance wheel in a clock or watch, especially such a spindle in a clock with vertical escapement; the male organ of copulation in certain mollusks.’ In case you’re wondering whether this is the same verge that English uses in the expression on the verge of, it is; the original ‘slender rod’ was taken metaphorically as a dividing line between one condition and another.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

ladrar

Ladrar, the Spanish word meaning ‘to bark,’ is little changed from the synonymous Latin verb lātrāre. While no ordinary English relative comes to mind, the adjective latrant*, derived from the present participle of the Latin verb, exists. It means, not surprisingly, ‘barking, snarling,’ although the Merriam-Webster Dictionary marks the word archaic, and the Collins English Dictionary literary. Back in 1845, when the word might have had a little more life in it than it does now, the Encyclopædia Metropolitana gave two examples from poetry:

Thy care be first the various gifts to trace,
The minds and genius of the latrant race.
—Tickell, “On Hunting”

Whose latrant stomachs oft protest
The deep-laid plans their dreams suggest.
— Green, “The Spleen”

When it comes to things zoological, we note that the scientific name of the coyote is Canis latrans, even if related species could equally well be described as ‘barking.’

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* The first syllable rhymes with that of matron.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

scient

One morning not long ago I was watching the news on television when all of a sudden—I don’t know why—I wondered whether English had ever used the adjective scient. If the noun convenience corresponds to the adjective convenient, and reliance to reliant, why not science to scient? When I did a search at the dictionary site onelook.com I found that English had indeed once accepted scient as an adjective meaning ‘knowing, skillful.’ The word was formed from Latin scient-, the stem of the present participle of the verb scīre that meant ‘to know.’ From scient- also came the abstract Latin noun scientia, whose meanings were ‘a knowing or being skilled in any thing; knowledge; skill, expertness,’ and ultimately ‘science,’ which Spanish has respelled ciencia. Science as we know it today didn’t exist in ancient times, so modern European languages had to create a new corresponding adjective. For Spanish and English that took the respective forms científico and scientific, with the Spanish adjective doubling as a noun corresponding to English scientist.

© 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

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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