grifo

When I bought a new faucet for my kitchen sink some years ago, I couldn’t help noticing that the box it came in was a sort of Rosetta stone, though with cardboard in lieu of the stone that would have made the container impractically heavy and expensive. The three kinds of writing on the box were not ancient Greek and two forms of Egyptian, but the modern languages English, Spanish, and French. For this blog’s audience I’ll forgo the French, but the English text identified the product as a “HighArc Kitchen Faucet” and the Spanish as a “Grifo de Cuello de Cisne.” I leave it to you to decide whether cuello de cisne ‘swan’s neck’ is a more poetic description than high-arc [which I’ve respelled]. I wasn’t familiar with grifo, but by context it had to mean ‘faucet.’ To my surprise, when I looked up the word I found that it’s the same grifo that originally meant and still means ‘griffin,’ which English also spells griffon and gryphon. The Spanish and English versions of the word ultimately trace back to grups, the ancient Greek name for the fabulous creature. As a refresher for you and me, here’s how Noah Webster defined griffon in his 1828 dictionary:

In the natural history of the ancients, an imaginary animal said to be generated between the lion and eagle. It is represented with four legs, wings and a beak, the upper part resembling an eagle, and the lower part a lion. This animal was supposed to watch over mines of gold and hidden treasures, and was consecrated to the sun. The figure of the griffon is seen on ancient medals, and is still borne in coat-armor. It is also an ornament of Greek architecture.

I proceeded to do an online search and turned up many images of griffons. I found that people have extended the use of the word to a type of vulture, which isn’t that much of a stretch, and also to a type of dog, which is quite a stretch. Apparently the curved shape of the mythological griffon’s eagle-like beak was what led Spanish to use grifo metaphorically for ‘a faucet.’ My faucet, with its cuello de cisne, added a different bird to the mix.

While English doesn’t use griffin as a verb and hasn’t made a verb like *griffinize from it, Spanish has used grifo in its original meaning of a mythical creature to create grifarse, which means ‘to rise up, rear up, stand up.’ The DRAE adds two senses of that reflexive verb that have developed in Costa Rica: ‘to get goose bumps; to get high on marijuana.’ It seems that the Costa Ricans have rich imaginations indeed.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

[This is an updated version of a post from 2010.]

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aurora

The last post mentioned that English Easter and 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. The Spanish word for ‘dawn’ is aurora, which was the same in Latin; that was no coincidence, because Old Spanish borrowed aurora directly from Latin in the first part of the 1200s. In Old Latin the first r in aurora had been an s, and the initial *aus- of the old form shows that the word was another descendant of the Indo-European root that gave rise to English east and Easter.

Not only did Latin aurora mean ‘dawn,’ but in Roman mythology Aurora was a goddess of the dawn, just as the etymologically related Germanic Eastre was. English uses Aurora as the historical name of the Roman goddess, and parents in our own time have occasionally given the name Aurora to a newborn girl who, though perhaps destined to be no goddess, nevertheless brought light into their lives. The 19th-century French writer who used the pseudonym George Sand had been born Armandine-Aurore-Lucille Dudevant Dupin, and she went by the name Aurore, the French cognate of Aurora.

In the guise of a town or city, an Aurora enlightens—we hope—the American states of Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Utah. There’s an Aurora in the Canadian province of Ontario, too. And apropos that cold country that shares such a long border with the United States yet has such a short share of daylight during its winter months, Spanish and English use the lower-case aurora to mean ‘a certain type of luminous atmospheric phenomenon,’ as in the aurora borealis of the northern polar regions and the aurora australis of their southern counterpart.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

avatar

Here’s what the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica had to say about avatar: “a Sanskrit word meaning ‘descent,’ specially used in Hindu mythology (and so in English) to express the incarnation of a deity visiting the earth for any purpose. The ten Avatars of Vishnu are the most famous. The Hindus believe he has appeared (1) as a fish, (2) as a tortoise, (3) as a hog, (4) as a monster, half man half lion, to destroy the giant Iranian, (5) as a dwarf, (6) as Rama, (7) again as Rama for the purpose of killing the thousand-armed giant Cartasuciriargunan, (8) as Krishna, (9) as Buddha. They allege that the tenth Avatar has yet to occur and will be in the form of a white-winged horse (Kalki) who will destroy the earth.”

Two years later, Webster’s Dictionary gave a similar (but much briefer) first definition, then went on to summarize the way English had been using the word less literally: ‘incarnation; manifestation as an object of worship or admiration.’ From that came the sense that prevailed through most of the rest of the 20th century: ‘someone who embodies an idea or concept.’

But we are in the 21st century, and the ancient notion of embodying a person has reincarnated in what is now a cyberworld. By far the most common modern English meaning of avatar, and the only one that most people know, is ‘a graphic representation of a person, whether online or in a computer game.’

But what about Spanish? It adopted avatar from French and first used it in the original sense of ‘an incarnation of a deity,’ then more loosely as ‘a reincarnation, a transformation.’ Even more loosely, and often in the plural, Spanish avatar has meant ‘phases, changes, vicissitudes.’ But of course almost no English-language computer term fails to make its way into Spanish, so there, too, avatar has taken on the sense ‘a graphical representation of a computer user.’

And just as English-speaking computer users have begun shortening avatar to avi, so now have some Spanish speakers.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

internauta

I was going to title today’s posting “Internaut—not,” because I mistakenly thought that there is no English internaut to match Spanish internauta ‘a person who uses the internet.’ My spelling checker even agrees with my former self, underlining the word internaut in red when I type it. But, like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman who was amazed to learn that he’d been speaking prose all his life, I found that I’d been an internaut without knowing it when I did an internet search for internaut and turned up plenty of hits. One of the first was by a certain “WiseGeek,” who explains that “An internaut is cyber slang for an online veteran who is ultra-familiar with the Internet as an entity, and with cyberspace in general.”

English internaut, like the more common Spanish and Portuguese and Italian internauta, and French internaute, is a blending of the first part of internet with the Greek naut- that originally meant ‘sailor.’ Probably the first well-known compound with that suffix was the Argonauta/Argonaut of ancient Greek mythology. The Argonautas/Argonauts were the people who sailed with Jason on the ship named the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.

More than two millennia later, in the 1950s and 60s, in another great quest that came to be known as the Space Race or the Race for Space, the cosmonautas/cosmonauts of the Soviet Union competed against the astronautas/astronauts of the United States.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

grifo

The other day I bought a new faucet for the kitchen sink, and I couldn’t help noticing that the box it came in was a sort of Rosetta stone, though with cardboard in lieu of the stone that would have made the container awfully heavy. The three kinds of writing on the box were not ancient Greek and two forms of Egyptian, but the modern languages English, Spanish, and French. For this blog’s audience I’ll forgo the French, but the English text identified the product as a “HighArc Kitchen Faucet” and the Spanish as a “Grifo de Cuello de Cisne.” Whether cuello de cisne ‘swan’s neck’ is a more poetic description than high-arc [which should have a hyphen], I leave to you. By context, grifo had to mean ‘faucet,’ but I wasn’t familiar with the word. To my surprise, when I looked it up, I found that this is the same grifo that originally meant and still means ‘griffin,’ which English also spells griffon. The Spanish and English versions of the word ultimately trace back to grups, which was the ancient Greek name for the fabulous creature. As a refresher for you and me, here’s how Noah Webster defined griffon in his 1828 dictionary:

“In the natural history of the ancients, an imaginary animal said to be generated between the lion and eagle. It is represented with four legs, wings and a beak, the upper part resembling an eagle, and the lower part a lion. This animal was supposed to watch over mines of gold and hidden treasures, and was consecrated to the sun. The figure of the griffon is seen on ancient medals, and is still borne in coat-armor. It is also an ornament of Greek architecture.”

I proceeded to do a Gooogle search and turned up many images of griffons. I found that people have extended the use of the word to a type of vulture, which isn’t that much of a stretch, and also to a type of dog, which is quite a stretch. Apparently the curved shape of the mythological griffon’s eagle-like beak was what led Spanish to use grifo metaphorically for ‘a faucet.’ My new faucet, with its cuello de cisne, has added another bird to the mix.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

Campbell

For many Americans, the name Campbell is probably most familiar as a brand of canned soups; I certainly ate my share of them growing up in the 1950s and 60s. Joseph Campbell, who died in 1987, was a scholar of comparative mythology. Earl Campbell was a Texas football player. There are towns named Campbell in California, Ohio, and other states. There’s a type of grape called the Campbell’s early. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who died in 1940, was a famous British stage actress; she played Eliza Doolittle in the original production of Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1914.

On and on we could go with Campbell, which, spelling aside, English speakers know rhymes with gamble. But Spanish speakers, or at least readers, may think they have an advantage: they can see that, but for an o at the end of each syllable—and what’s an o if not a little zero, and isn’t zero worthless anyhow?—the name Campbell is campo bello, or ‘beautiful field.’ They may think that, but unfortunately there’s zero truth in it, because Campbell is a Scottish name. In A Dictionary of First Names, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges explain that it arose from Gaelic words meaning ‘crooked mouth,’ something that reminds us that family names came into use as descriptions of the first people who bore them.

Spanish speakers traveling in Sicily, however, who find themselves in either of the two towns called Campobello, can hold their ground in asserting that this time the name does mean ‘beautiful field.’ With components reversed, and not as easy to recognize, is the French cognate Beauchamp. Wikipedia lists a slew of people bearing the French version of the name, including a certain Noah Beauchamp, who is quaintly described as an “American blacksmith and murderer.” The murder took place in the doorway of a house, and therefore, though it sullied Beauchamp’s name, didn’t defile a beautiful field.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman

From ancient Egypt to southern California

The wonderful 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica said of ancient Isis that she was “the most famous of the Egyptian goddesses. She was of human form, in early times distinguished only by the hieroglyph of her name upon her head. Later she commonly wore the horns of a cow, and the cow was sacred to her…. [S]he was of great importance in mythology, religion and magic, appearing constantly in the very ancient Pyramid texts as the devoted sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus…. She was supreme in magical power, cunning and knowledge…. Much Egyptian magic turns on the healing or protection of Horus by Isis, and it is chiefly from magical texts that the myth of Isis and Osiris as given by Plutarch can be illustrated.”

Plutarch was Greek, and a current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that Isis is a Greek form of the original Egyptian Aset or Eset, which meant ‘throne.’ The fact that we use a Greek version of the goddess’s name tells us how important she was not only in ancient Egypt but in ancient Greece as well. In fact Isis served as the first element in the new Greek name Isidoros; the second element came from Greek doron ‘gift,’ which we recognize as a relative of dote/dowry and donador/donor.

Despite the doubly pagan origin of Greek Isidoros ‘gift of Isis,’ early Christians adopted the name. The most prominent person to bear it was Isidoro de Sevilla, who was born around 560 and died in 636, and who held the post of Archbishop of Seville for three decades. The Catholic Church made him a saint, and it is for him that some of the towns in the Latin American world called San Isidro or San Ysidro are named. The San Ysidro in California, however, which occupies the southwestern corner of the 48 contiguous states in the United States, owes its name to the medieval Spanish saint San Isidro Labrador.

The female nature of the original Egyptian Isis lives on in the English name Isidora or Isadora, whose best-known bearer was the early 20th century American dancer Isadora Duncan.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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