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

clangor

The not-so-common word clangor exists in Spanish and English because both languages borrowed it directly from Latin. The similarly uncommon Latin noun had been based on the stem of the verb clangere, which the Romans had created to imitate the action it represented, namely ‘to clang, to sound.’

Spanish uses clangor for ‘the sound of a trumpet or bugle,’ while the English clangor means ‘a clanging; a racket, a din.’ Notice that the first part of the English definition is circular because it assumes you know what the related clang means. Short, consonant-heavy words like that are usually native English, but in this case English appears to have formed clang from Latin clangere. As far as I can tell, Spanish doesn’t have a verb that’s a descendant of clangere but if it ever creates one we’ll certainly raise a clangor to mark the event.

Speaking of events, it occurred to me that the city of Bangor, Maine, might well have held some sort of festival called The Clangor in Bangor. An Internet search failed to turn anything up, however, so the folks on the Bangor City Council might want to get cracking.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

lore

snowy-egret-9178

Click the photograph for more information about this bird.

Two unrelated English words have ended up as lore. The more common one, which means ‘a traditional body of knowledge,’ appears in the second line of Poe’s famous poem “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

The other lore is a biological term. It refers to something you probably didn’t know there was a word for: ‘the region between a bird’s eye and its bill.’ That region is typically strap-shaped (see photo above), and in fact lore was borrowed from the Latin noun lōrum that meant ‘strap, thong.’ Botanical Spanish uses the adjective lorado to mean ‘strap-shaped,’ but ornithological Spanish doesn’t appear to have borrowed the noun *loro (perhaps because it would get confused with the loro that means ‘parrot’).
From the root of lōrum the Romans seem to have created Latin lōrīca, which designated a leather cuirass, a corselet of thongs.’ English uses that word as a historical term, and by analogy biologists have extended the definition of lorica to a ‘protective external shell or case, as of a rotifer or any of certain other microscopic organisms.’
© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

lid

The title of today’s post isn’t the English lid that means ‘cover’ but the Spanish lid that means ‘contention, controversy, argument, disputation.’ Probably no English relative will come to mind until you learn that the Spanish noun evolved from the Latin stem līt whose meanings included ‘strife, dispute, quarrel; charge, accusation, lawsuit.’ In that last sense, the Romans combined līt– with the verb agere ‘to do, make’ (think agente/agent) to create the compound lītigāre that we’ve borrowed as litigar/litigate.

From lid Spanish has made the verb lidiar that means basically ‘to struggle, fight,’ particularly against a bull. A derivative sense is ‘to get along, cope, get by, make out, make do, deal with, manage.’ English doesn’t seem to have any simple descendant of līt– the way Spanish does, but English law uses the Latin phrase ad lītem “to refer to the appointment by a court of one party… to act in a lawsuit on behalf of another party such as a child or an incapacitated adult, who is deemed incapable of representing himself.”

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

samphire

In learning about the native plant that botanists categorize as Sarcocornia (previously Salicornia) pacifica recently, I noticed that a couple of its vernacular names are Pacific swampfire and Pacific samphire. The plant grows in saline marshes, so that accounted for the “swamp.” Some parts of the plant turn reddish, so I figured that color metaphorically became the “fire.” As I imagined it, samphire would have arisen as a faster, simpler pronunciation of swampfire.

So much for hypotheses: once I investigated, I found I had things backwards, because swampfire arose as a folk-etymological recasting of the opaque samphire. I’d gotten it partly right, though, because samphire did come about as a phonetically recast English version of the French name Saint Pierre. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the name, which originally applied to a Eurasian plant (hence the qualifier Pacific swampfire), came “from French (herbe de) Saint Pierre, (herb of) Saint Peter, after Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, a patron saint of fisherman (the plant being so called because it grows on rocks near the sea, the name perhaps also being influenced by French pierre, rock).”

The connections to Spanish, of course, are that French saint is Spanish santo (both from Latin sanctus ‘holy’), and French pierre is Spanish piedra (both from Latin petra, taken from Greek petrā ‘cliff, rock’). Relatives of the former include santificar/sanctify and santurrón/sanctimonious. Relatives of the latter include petrificar/petrify and petróleo/petroleum (literally ‘rock oil’).

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Two haves that look like have-nots

Just about everyone recognizes the first part of the English word malady. It comes from Latin male, which meant the same as its Spanish descendant mal ‘badly.’ The second part of malady, which English took from Old French, remains opaque. If we trace the compound back to Latin, we find it began as the two-word phrase male habitus ‘badly held,’ whose second element is the past participle of habēre, the ancestor of Spanish haber ‘to have.’

In the case of the English adjective able, but the loss of an initial h- in Old French, which is where English acquired the word, ended up concealing the word’s origin in Latin habilis, whose meanings were ‘that may be easily handled or managed, manageable, suitable, fit, proper, apt, expert, light, nimble, swift.’ The ‘handled’ sense shows that the Romans created habilis from habēre ‘to have, hold, possess, handle.’ In another instance of Seeing Isn’t Believing, the Latin adjective suffix -abilis is unrelated.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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