Today being the 11th of December, let me point out that 11 is what mathematicians call a número primo/prime number. The primes are one of three categories into which the positive whole numbers are divided. Most common are the composites, each member of which can be represented by a rectangular array of dots with the same number of dots in each row. For instance, we can represent the composite number 12 as three rows of four dots each:

•    •    •    •
•    •    •    •
•    •    •    •

In contrast, a prime number cannot be represented as a rectangular array. We may try with the prime number 11, but we have one dot too few to fill up a second row

•    •    •    •    •    •
•    •    •    •    •

or we have a surplus dot that spills over into a third row

•    •    •    •    •
•    •    •    •    •

(That last dot can also serve as the period at the end of the previous sentence.) No, the only possible arrangement for 11 is

•    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

In other words, all the dots end up in the first—and only—row. That’s one way of explaining why such a number is called primo/prime, from the Latin word for ‘first,’ primus. Historically, the ancient Greeks had the notion that the primes are first in importance, the fundamental type of whole number. The composites were secondary because they can always be expressed as products of primes (which amounts to saying that we can make rectangular arrays of dots to represent them).

Ironically, as fortunate readers may remember having been taught during their years en la primaria/in primary school, the Greeks placed the very first positive whole number, 1, which was of prime importance to them, in a category of its own. The ancients accorded the number 1 that distinction for being the first [positive whole] number, the generator (by addition) of every other number.

All of this tempts me to proclaim the primacía/primacy of mathematics over everything else, but I would never do such a thing in a column about etymology, where words are our prime consideration.


For more about the English word eleven and its not-at-all-obvious connection to something in Spanish, see last year’s post “The hidden one in once and eleven.”

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

There’s no getting out of it: there is no rage in outrage

The last post dealt in part with the short and useful English word out, but even without that priming of the pump, almost all native English speakers who are asked about the origin of the word outrage will assume it’s a compound made up of out and rage. The semantics seem strongly to support that interpretation: an outrage is behavior that goes outside the norm of decency, and people who have been the victims of outrageous behavior can understandably be filled with rage. But as the title says, there’s no getting out of it: there is no rage in outrage, nor is there any out.

The Spanish cognate of outrage, ultraje, offers insight into the true origin of the word, which is based on the Latin ultrā that meant ‘beyond,’ so an outrage goes beyond the bounds of decent behavior. The reason there’s no trace of the original l in outrage is that English took the word intact from Old French, where Latin ultrā had evolved to outre, and -age was (and still is) a standard noun-forming suffix that’s cognate to Spanish -aje. English has also more recently borrowed French outré, which means ‘eccentric, bizarre, startlingly unconventional.’

Spanish and English both have compounds with ultra- in them, like ultramarino/ultramarine, ultravioleta/ultraviolet, ultramoderno/ultramodern, and ultramontano/ultramontane. The prefix seems to be more of a living one in English than in Spanish, as evidenced by compounds like ultra-chic, ultra-picky, ultra-sexy, ultra-stupid, ultra-gross. I searched online and didn’t find an example of anyone using ultra-outré, but it’s probably only a matter of time, and until then this post might turn up if anyone else does a search for that etymologically redundant phrase.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Primavera and spring

Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.

Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.

Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

ten and ten times ten

The Spanish word ciento, which gets shortened to cien before a noun, means ‘a hundred.’ The synonymous Latin original was centum, whose cent- corresponds to the hund- in the native English cognate hundred (with the -red developing from a Germanic root that meant ‘reckoning, number,’ senses similar to those of the apparent Latin cognate ratio).

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Latin centum, which was pronounced kentum, had developed from Indo-European *dkm-tom, whose first element led to Latin decem and Spanish diez as well as English ten. It’s not clear what sense the Indo-European suffix -tom conveyed in its own right, but the compound *dkm-tom ultimately came to mean ‘ten groups of ten.’§ As for form, the d of *dkm-tom was eventually lost, and the -kmt- of the remainder went on to produce Latin cent(um) and English hund(red).

The Modern Latin phrase per centum ‘for [each] hundred’ has become Spanish por ciento. English originally borrowed the Latin phrase in full, then began abbreviating it per cent., with a period to show that cent. was indeed an abbreviation. Only in the early part of the 20th century—another derivative, like Spanish centuria, of Latin centum—did English drop the period, writing at first per cent, then the combined percent that is the usual current form.

The French descendant of Latin centum is cent, which Americans have adopted as a monetary unit worth one one-hundredth of a dollar. The analog in Spanish-speaking countries is the centavo, or in some countries the centésimo.

§ On that score, I have to report that one day in the early 1970s I was in a supermarket on Long Island and overheard a nearby woman tell her daughter that ten times ten is a hundred, which is true enough, and that a hundred times a hundred is a thousand, which is not. Etymology could have ridden to the rescue there, because Germanic *thūs-hundi‑, the ancestor of English thousand, meant ‘a swollen hundred,’ which is to say ‘ten times a hundred.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

The right side of words

I’ve spent years trying to stay on the right side of words, which for the sake of this column means the etymological side. The word word is native English, and it arose from a suffixed form of the Indo-European root *wer-, which meant ‘to speak.’ That same root produced Latin verbum (whose v was pronounced like an English w), which meant the same as its English cognate word.

It doesn’t take much of an observer to notice that Latin verbum looks a whole lot like our word verbo/verb, and of course a verb is a kind of a word. Is that just a coincidence? No. What happened is that a Greek descendant of Indo-European *wer- took on the sense ‘verb [as opposed to a noun],’ and Latin added the Greek sense to its own verbum. Spanish borrowed that meaning of the word as verbo, and Old French as verbe, which has become English verb.

The plural of the neuter Latin noun verbum was verba, which could mean literally ‘words’ but also more loosely ‘expressions, language, discourse, conversation.’ Vulgar Latin transformed that to *verva, foreshadowing the confusion between b and v that still exists in Spanish. As happened to many Latin neuter plurals, *verva, with its typically feminine ending, came to be construed as a feminine singular as it evolved to Old French verve, one of whose meanings was ‘inspiration.’ By the 1400s the word took on the sense ‘fanciful expression, caprice,’ but still with a connection to the spoken word. Near the end of the 1600s English borrowed verve, which stands as a doublet alongside verb. The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, which I often quote because it’s out of copyright and because its definitions tend to be full of verve themselves, defined verve as ‘excitement of imagination such as animates a poet, artist, or musician, in composing or performing; rapture; enthusiasm; spirit; energy.’

Although Spanish has done its share of borrowing from French, English has done a whole lot more. That was a result initially of the French conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but English kept right on borrowing even after the French were no longer in control of England. Spanish doesn’t share with French the development of Vulgar Latin *verva, nor did it borrow the word from French or English. The Velazquez® Spanish and English Dictionary translates the useful English verve as ‘energía; empuje; brío; entusiasmo.’

©2015 Steven Schwartzman

The Return of the Native

If Spanish Navidad ‘Christmas’ came from natividad ‘birth,’ and natividad ultimately from Latin natus ‘born,’ there was an intervening step: from natus Latin created the adjective nativus, which meant ‘that has arisen from or by birth.’ We’ve carried that adjective over, of course, as nativo/native. In English that has given birth to the noun nativism, which the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined as ‘the disposition to favor the native inhabitants of a country, in preference to immigrants from foreign countries.’ The word, whose Spanish equivalent is nativismo, also has a philosophical definition: ‘the doctrine of innate* ideas, or that the mind possesses forms of thought independent of sensation.’ The corresponding adjective is nativista/nativist.

In French, Latin nativus evolved to naïf, which English has borrowed as a doublet alongside native. Here’s how The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia defined naïf: ‘Ingenuous; artless; natural**: the masculine form, naïve being the corresponding feminine, but used also, in English, without regard to gender….’ In that dictionary’s separate entry for naïve we find: ‘Simple; unsophisticated; ingenuous; artless.’ The usage example the dictionary gave came from Frederick Marryatt’s strangely named 1837 novel Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend: “Little Lilly . . . would listen to his conversation and remarks, which were almost as naïve and unsophisticated as her own.”


* Innate is another related word, whose Spanish equivalent innato is one of the relatively rare Spanish words with -nn- in it; historically, -nn- in many Latin words became ñ in Spanish, e.g. annus —> año.

** Natural is yet another related word.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Feliz Navidad — almost


We’re three days away from a holiday that English speakers call Christmas, literally ‘Christ’s mass’ or ‘Christ’s festival.’ Although biblical scholars have determined that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on that date, Spanish emphasizes his birth in its name for the holiday, Navidad. That’s a shortened form of natividad, which, like its English cognate nativity, is based on Latin natus ‘born.’ From natus came the adjective natalis ‘pertaining to birth,’ which has become our shared adjective natal. In Christianity, the Latin expression natalis (dies) ‘birth day’ came to be associated especially with the birth of Jesus. As Latin evolved in Gallia to Old French, the adjective, carrying the full weight of the phrase, evolved to the noun nael and then noel. English now uses the modern French Noël (often without the two dots that show the word is pronounced in two syllables rather than one) as a name for Christmas or the Christmas season. Also from Latin natalis came the girl’s name that exists in the versions Natalia, Natalya, and Natalie. And Noël has served in English as a male name, for example that of the playwright Noël Coward.

But back to nativity. Noah Webster defined the word this way in his dictionary of 1828: ‘birth; the coming into life or the world,’ and he went on to note that “the feast of Christmas is observed in memory of Christ’s nativity.” From Navidad—which serves in Spanish as a female name—came the adjective navideño ‘pertaining to Christmas.’ English, with its great flexibility to put a word to work as a different part of speech, uses the noun Christmas as an adjective, so regalo navideño corresponds to Christmas present. English can also go the extra step and extend Christmas by adding a suffix that is overtly adjectival; the result is Christmassy, meaning ‘typical of Christmas, appropriate for Christmas.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Azor and Azores

Spanish and English use the plural Azores as the name of a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean some 900 miles west of the coast of Portugal, which the islands are a part of. (The Portuguese call them the Açores). Not as well known as the Azores, especially to English speakers, is the lower-case Spanish word azores, also a plural, whose singular is azor. An azor is a type of bird that English calls a goshawk, which is to say ‘a goose hawk, a hawk that preys on geese.’ The Spanish name evolved from Vulgar Latin *acceptor, which we’re likely to misinterpret as ‘someone or something that accepts.’ Like our verb aceptar/accept, Vulgar Latin *acceptor developed from the past participle of Latin capere, which had the stronger senses ‘to take, grab, seize.’ As a result, Spanish azor, like *acceptor and its standard Latin predecessor accipiter, was conceived as the name of a particular type of bird that seizes its prey. (Using another Latin word, Spanish and English call that kind of bird a raptor).

From azor Spanish made the verb azorar, which with reference to an azor and its prey means ‘to frighten, disturb, pursue.’ The verb can also mean ‘to urge on [an animal]’ and, extending its scope to people, ‘to ruffle, fluster, embarrass, irritate.’ The corresponding noun is azoramiento, whose senses include ‘alarm, embarrassment, excitement.’

The Catalan linguist Joan Corominas pointed out that Vulgar Latin *acceptor led not only to Spanish azor but also to Old Spanish acetor, from which came acetorero ‘a person who raises and trains birds of prey.’ With the loss of its o, that word became acetrero, which has been further shortened to cetrero. A cetrero is ‘a falconer, a person who uses a bird of prey for hunting.’

Robert Frost ended a well-known poem with the line “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I’ll end this entry with a thought I trust you won’t find startling, that one could do worse than be an azor de palabras.


UPDATE. The second commenter on this article mentioned that a bird appears on the flag of the Azores, something I hadn’t known. In looking up that flag, I found a Wikipedia article which states that the early Portuguese settlers were confused in their identification, and that the bird they saw on the islands wasn’t a goshawk but a type of buzzard—which presumably looked like a goshawk. Such misidentifications are common, as in central Texas, where I live, and where the Ashe juniper trees are erroneously called cedars.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


The previous post’s discussion of botón/button seems to call for a follow-up posting about ojal, the Spanish word for ‘the opening in an article of clothing that a button passes through.’ English calls it straightforwardly a buttonhole, but the Spanish imagination sees that hole differently, given that ojal was created from ojo, the familiar Spanish word corresponding to its native English relative eye. Actually English can use the same metaphor, as in speaking of the eye of a needle or of the type of fastening called a hook and eye. In addition, English uses the diminutive eyelet for ‘a small round hole in leather or cloth for threading a lace, string, or rope through,’ as well as ‘a metal ring used to reinforce such a hole.’

© 201r Steven Schwartzman

Reciting your prayers

The last post included the English words perfect and parfait. Those are dobletes/doublets, two words in a given language that can be traced back to the same source (in this case, Latin perfectum). The more contact a language has had with others, and the more it has borrowed from them, the greater the likelihood that it will end up with doublets. English and Spanish, both being world languages, each have hundreds of doublets.

Doublets can also form when a language turns not to its neighbors but to its own past. The starting point for a pair of Spanish doublets of that type is the Latin verb recitāre, which meant ‘to read aloud, to declaim.’ Through gradual changes in pronunciation during the centuries when Latin developed into the Romance languages, recitāre evolved to Spanish rezar, where the declaiming became limited to the repeating of prayers. As a result, Spanish rezar now means ‘to pray,’ and the noun rezo is both ‘the act of praying’ and ‘a prayer.’

In the Middle Ages, Spanish looked back to the more general Latin recitāre and borrowed it as the doublet recitar. English acquired recite from Old French reciter, which of course goes back to the same Latin original as Spanish recitar. Corresponding to recitar/recite we have two nouns, recitación/recitation and the shared recital.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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