flébil

Spanish flébil is a literary word that means the same as its Latin source flēbilis lamentable, deplorable, mournful,’ which had come from the verb flēre ‘to weep.’ If no English relative comes to mind, it’s in part because the first l dropped out of flēbilis as the adjective evolved into the Old French feble that passed into English and has taken on the modern form feeble. Note that the shift in meaning is another reason English-speaking students of Latin wouldn’t make a connection to an English descendant of flēbilis. Once we accept feeble, we can pretty easily see that it has a doublet, foible. That’s the form that made it into early modern French but is now obsolete in that language. What had started out as an adjective came to be used as a noun to designate ‘the weaker part of a sword blade.’ Semantic expansion led to the modern sense ‘a minor weakness or peculiarity in someone’s character or behavior.’ Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gave this definition: “A particular moral weakness; a failing. When we speak of a man’s foible in the singular, which is also called his weak side, we refer to a predominant failing. We use also the plural, foibles, to denote moral failings or defects. It is wise in every man to know his own foibles.”

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

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pauta

I remember that when I lived in Honduras a long time ago I had a hard time making sense of the Spanish word pauta. Looking now at Span¡shD!ct, I see that English translations include ‘norm, standard, guideline, pattern, model, example.’ In medicine, a pauta is ‘a schedule for dosing or treatment.’ In addition to those non-tangible senses, the noun can also mean ‘a line on a piece of paper’ and ‘the set of lines used in musical notation,’ which is to say ‘a staff.’

I think one reason pauta seemed troublesome to me half a century ago is that there’s no obvious English cognate to tie it to. Etymology shows that one exists, and to understand it we have to go back to the Latin noun pactum, which meant what our borrowed pacto/pact still means. According to Joan Corominas, in the Middle Ages pacta, the plural of pactum, took on the senses ‘legal text, law.’ Eventually, as so often happened, that neuter plural ending in -a got taken for a feminine singular, and by the early 1600s the resulting Spanish pauta meant ‘dispositivo que ayuda a dar dirección horizontal a los renglones de un escrito,’ which is to say ‘a device to keep lines of writing horizontal [i.e. straight and parallel].’ From the Medieval Latin meaning came the more-abstract modern Spanish senses ‘norm, standard, guideline, pattern, model, example.’ The 17th-century Spanish meaning of pauta has persisted in the senses ‘line on a piece of paper’ and ‘staff.’

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

allow

The English verb allow is unusual in that it comes from the merging of two verbs in Old French, neither of which meant ‘allow.’ One source was Old French alouer, which developed from Latin allaudāre, a compound of the laudāre that meant ‘to praise’ and that English has borrowed as laud. Latin laudāre evolved naturally in Spanish to loar.

The other contributor to Old French alouer was the Medieval Latin verb allocāre, which meant ‘to assign,’ and which English has acquired as allocate. The Latin verb was based on the noun locus ‘place,’ which served as the root for Spanish lugar.

Putting those two tracks together: somehow the notions of assigning and praising led in the Middle Ages to the sense of permitting that English allow took on and has retained.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

nival

Spanish and English share the adjective nival, which they naturally pronounce differently. The word means ‘having to do with snow’; it has also taken on a biological sense: ‘growing in or under, or living on snow cover.’ Spanish speakers have the advantage over English speakers because nival resembles nieve ‘snow.’ On the other hand, English speakers may take a clue from an American state with a Spanish name, Nevada, meaning ‘snow-covered.’

Nival comes from Latin nivālis, the adjective corresponding to the word for snow, nix, with stem niv-. That noun evolved from the Indo-European root *sneigwh-. While the initial s- has melted away in Latin, it has remained frozen onto the beginning of the native English cognate snow.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Today is Easter

Today is Easter. Foreign students of English may wonder, as native speakers rarely seem to, whether there’s a connection between Easter and east. There is. Modern English east is descended from the identically spelled Old English east. (The word had two syllables, e-ast. The vowels were pronounced as in Spanish, and the first vowel was long, meaning that it was held for a longer time than the second vowel.) Old English east developed from the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine,’ so that in etymological terms east is the direction from which the sun shines forth at dawn.

English Easter [Sun]day traces back to Old English Easterdæg. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained the first part of that compound (which was pronounced E-ast-er or E-ast-re, with the first vowel long): “The name Easter (Ger. Ostern), like the names of the days of the week, is a survival from the old Teutonic [i.e. Germanic] mythology. According to Bede (De Temp. Rat. c. xv.) it is derived from Eostre, or Ostdra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month answering to our April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. This month, Bede says, was the same as the mensis paschalis, ‘when the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.'” We can add that Anglo-Saxon Easter (or Eastre or Eostre or Ostdra) probably arose as a goddess of the dawn that brightens the eastern [from Old English easterne] horizon at the beginning of each day; and that the spring, of which Easter was a goddess, is the season in which the amount of sunshine gradually increases. Spring is metaphorically the dawning of the new year.

English east and the synonymous Spanish este are clearly related, but only scholars are likely to know that Spanish took este (originally leste, with the definite article attached, as still in Portuguese) from French est, and that French est had come from Middle English est. It’s curious that the word started out as east in Old English, became est in Middle English, and is now back to east (though with a different pronunciation). It’s also curious that both French and Spanish should have borrowed the word, directly or indirectly, from English.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

The other “y”

The Spanish y that everyone knows is the one that means ‘and.’ Actually, everyone knows the other y, too, but almost no one recognizes it as an element in its own right: it’s the y at the end of the hay that means ‘there is, there are.’ The first element, ha, is the third-person-singular present tense of haber ‘to have.’ The y that follows is what linguists call a bound form, meaning that it no longer functions as an independent word. It developed from Latin ibi ‘in that place, there,’ so hay means literally ‘it has there,’ which is semantically akin to English there is. Some of you will recognize hay as the counterpart of the synonymous French il y a (unlike Spanish, French requires the dummy subject ilello/it,’ and the order of the other two words is reversed).

A Latin compound of ibi was ibīdem, which meant ‘in the same place.’ In footnotes and endnotes, writers use ibīdem, usually abbreviated ib. or ibid., to indicate that a statement comes from the same source mentioned in the previous note.

The Indo-European root underlying Latin ibi was *i-, which the American Heritage Dictionary designates a pronominal stem. Another Latin word based on that root was the adverb item, which meant ‘in that same manner, likewise.’ A tradition arose of using item to introduce each new entry in a list: “and likewise this thing, and likewise this other thing, etc.” Eventually each member in a list came to be known as an ítem/item. Colloquial English limits the list to two in calling a pair of romantically involved people “an item.” Where English has turned item into the verb itemize, Spanish has not, preferring to use the unrelated detallar.

Native English words based on the Indo-European root *i- include the archaic yon, the only somewhat more used yonder, and the common compound beyond. The root also appears in native English yes, whose second element comes from the same Indo-European root as Spanish es, so yes originally conveyed the idea ‘that’s how it is, it’s that way.’

Yes, that’s how it is in the world of etymology.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

trabeate

Someone who encounters the unfamiliar English adjective trabeate (or trabeated) and looks it up at vocabulary.com finds as a first definition ‘not arcuate.’ Hmm. Fortunately the dictionary goes on to explain its explanation: ‘having straight horizontal beams or lintels (rather than arches).’ With that clarification, we recognize the arc in arcuate, but what about the trab in trabeate? That turns out to come from the Latin noun trabs, with genitive trabis, meaning ‘beam, timber.’ Latin trabs gave rise to Old French trave, which English has adopted as an architectural term meaning ‘crossbeam’ or ‘a portion of a construction made with crossbeams.’ Another architectural term is architrave (Spanish arquitrabe), which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘the lowermost part of an entablature in classical architecture, resting directly on top of the columns. Also called epistyle.’

People in Roman times used beams not only as supports but also as obstacles, for example to secure the doors of buildings. Latin trabs evolved to Spanish traba, which has lost the literal and constructive senses and retained the ones pertaining to blocking and constraining. A traba is an ‘obstacle, hindrance, hobble.’ Trabas are ‘shackles.’ The derived verb trabar has meanings that include ‘to hinder, obstruct, bar, fasten, hobble, tie, hold shut,’ and even ‘wedge open.’ More constructively, a trabazón is an ‘assembly, link, joining, connection’; with regard to physical substances it means ‘consistency, coherence.’

If we go back well beyond Latin trabs, we find that the underlying Indo-European root is *treb-, which meant ‘dwelling.’ From that root came native English thorp, which designates ‘a small village.’ Though the word is archaic in its own right, it persists as the final element in many English place names. From thorp‘s Afrikaans cognate South African English has acquired the synonymous dorp. We also recognize the German cognate in place names like Düsseldorf.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

rival

The word rival, spelled the same in Spanish and English but of course pronounced differently, has an etymology that few people would guess. It comes from the Latin adjective rīvālis, which referred to two people who use the same rīvus, i.e. the same stream. Just goes to show that today’s fights over water rights are nothing new. And just because Latin rīvus meant ‘stream,’ we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that English river comes from the same source. It doesn’t, and therefore neither does the Spanish cognate ribera. It’s just a coincidence that Latin rīpa, ultimately the source of river and ribera, happened to mean ‘river bank.’ From Latin rīpa came the adjective rīpārius ‘having to do with a river bank,’ whose feminine form *rīpāria began to function as a noun in Vulgar Latin. Spanish ribera preserves the original sense of the river bank. In French rivière and English river, however, semantic drift has carried the meaning out into the water.

Coming back to the Latin rīvus that meant ‘stream,’ we’ll note that the derived verb derivar/derive has the literal sense ‘to flow from.’ The underlying Indo-European root *rei-, which meant ‘to flow’ and ‘to run,’ is the source of native English run.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Antojo and anteojo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a language in possession of a future will develop in an unpredictable way. Take the Spanish compound antojo, made from ante ‘before, in front of’ and ojo ‘eye’. There was a time when antojo meant ‘telescope,’ a device that you literally put in front of an eye. In the plural, antojos meant ‘binoculars’ or ‘eyeglasses’. To keep conveying those optical senses, Spanish eventually recast the word as anteojo in the singular and anteojos in the plural. The reason for the recasting wasn’t just to make clear that the first element of the compound is ante. No, the reason was to distinguish the optical meanings from others that antojo had unpredictably developed. In Spanish, ‘something in front of your eyes’ became ‘something that catches your attention’ and then ‘something you’d suddenly like to have.’ Two common English translations for antojo are ‘whim’ and ‘craving’. While anyone can have a whim, antojo added as one of its senses ‘the particular kind of craving pregnant women feel for a certain food or combination of foods’. Then antojo went on to add the meaning ‘birthmark’. If that puzzles you, you’re probably not aware of the folk (and faux) belief that birthmarks result from pregnant women’s unfulfilled cravings.

While English speakers no doubt once shared the same folk belief about birthmarks, the English language didn’t share any of the developments just discussed. English doesn’t call a telescope, much less a craving, a *fore-eye or *foreye (though since the 1970s eye candy has made its way into popular parlance). English has, however, acquired the Latin-derived prefix ante- in compounds like anterior, antecedent, and antedate. English also uses ante by itself as a noun to mean ‘money that a player in a card game has to be put forth before being allowed to play or keep playing’.

As for Spanish ojo, it developed from the synonymous Latin oculus, which bears a diminutive ending. The main part of the Latin word goes back to the Indo-European root *okw, which also produced the Old English ēage that has become modern English eye. Architectural English has borrowed Latin oculus to designate ‘a round aperture or window’.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Not all that glitters is gold

In a recent comment on my other blog, Jim at How I See It asked about “the relationship of the words oro, ore, oriole, orange, aura, and the gold symbol Au.” Etymologically, it makes sense to take the last first, because chemistry uses the symbol Au as an abbreviation of the Latin noun for ‘gold,’ aurum; that’s the predecessor of Spanish oro, the first word in the list. Oriole is also related. English acquired it from Old French, where it developed from Latin aureolus, a diminutive of aureus, the adjective corresponding to aurum; that makes an oriole ‘a golden [bird].’ Latin aureus is the obvious source of Spanish áureo. It’s the less obvious source of öre, a Swedish unit of currency that’s 1/100 of a krona.

The fact that oriole sounds a lot like Oreo, the familiar cookie, made me wonder if there’s a connection. An article at thoughtco.com has this to say:

So where did the name “Oreo” come from? The people at Nabisco aren’t quite sure. Some believe that the cookie’s name was taken from the French word for gold, “or” (the main color on early Oreo packages).

Others claim the name stemmed from the shape of a hill-shaped test version; thus naming the cookie in Greek for mountain, “oreo.”

Still others believe the name is a combination of taking the “re” from “cream” and placing it between the two “o”s in “chocolate” – making “o-re-o.”

And still, others believe that the cookie was named Oreo because it was short and easy to pronounce.

Or, says snarky me, maybe it’s called Oreo because the name comes from explanation 1 or 2 or 3 or 4.

Of the remaining three words in the original query, none are related to each other or to gold. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, ore developed from a cross between “Old English ōra and Old English ār, brass, copper, bronze.” English orange and the Spanish cognate naranja are ultimately of Dravidian origin; you can read the word’s interesting history here. As for aura, it goes back to Greek aurā, which meant ‘breath.’ That’s still a primary sense in Spanish. From it came the extended meaning ‘slight breeze,’ which is a poetic sense in Spanish and used to be a meaning of the word in English as well.

In closing, let me point out the wording of this post’s title, which is logically correct. The commonly heard “all that glitters isn’t gold” logically means that every glittering thing isn’t gold, which is obviously not true. My version bears the indisputable aura of reason.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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