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.

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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

mariposa

The previous post connected Spanish mariquita ‘ladybug’ to Mary, whom Catholics refer to as Our Lady. Mary is also connected to a larger and even prettier insect, the butterfly, which Spanish calls a mariposa. That word was apparently created by combining María and the imperative of posar ‘to set down, place, pose, alight.’ Guido Gómez de Silva suggests that María may be a stand-in for ‘woman’ in general, and for support he points to babochka, the Russian word for ‘butterfly,’ which is a diminutive of the baba that means ‘woman.’

If we switch over to the botanical world, at least as English describes it, we have marigold. Old English called the flower just golde, based on the yellow-orange of the flowers. The reference to Mary was added in the Middle Ages.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

camedrio

Here’s how the 22nd edition of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines camedrio: ‘Planta de la familia de las Labiadas, pequeña, de tallos duros, vellosos, hojas pequeñas parecidas a las del roble y flores purpúreas en verticilos colgantes, usadas como febrífugo.’ In English, we’d have ‘A plant in the Lamiaceae [mint family], small, with hard stems, hairy, small leaves similar to those of an oak, and purple flowers in hanging verticils [whorls], used as a febrifuge [fever reducer].’

Another Spanish name for the plant is germandrina, a word that surprisingly, except for its diminutive ending, developed from the same source as camedrio. The  original Greek name for the plant was khamaidrus, a word made up of khamai ‘on the ground’ and drus ‘oak,’ so the compound described a plant low to the ground that nevertheless has leaves like those of the mighty oak. The Romans borrowed the word as the little-changed chamaedrys, which has become Spanish camedrio. Late Greek refashioned the original as khamandrua, which Medieval Latin further garbled to germandrea; that’s the source of English germander, French germandrée, and the alternate Spanish name germandrina.

Linnaeus, the great Swedish biologist and classifier par excellence, assigned the plant the scientific name Teucrium chamaedrys. That designates the European species that the Greeks called khamaidrus, but botanists have identified closely related plants in different parts of the world that are now also classified in the genus Teucrium. The species that’s native here in central Texas also grows in all the contiguous states of the United States and as far north as Canada, a fact conveyed by its scientific name, Teucrium canadense. Citizens of the “Lower 48,” not to be overshadowed by their neighbor to the north, insist on calling the plant American germander. Anyone wishing to remain neutral can use another vernacular name, wood-sage, which refers to the plant’s predilection for growing in shaded or partly shaded areas.

Flowers and buds of American germander (Teucrium canadense)

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

verbena

Spanish uses the word verbena in two ways, only one of which English shares. The Spanish-only verbena can be ‘a fair, a festival,’ as well as ‘an open-air dance engaged in during such a festival.’ A verbena may be associated with a saint, as is the Verbena de San Juan, whose celebration is described in the blog Detallets: Artesania i Disseny (which despite the Catalan title is written in Spanish). According to Maryna G., the author of that blog, “De los romanos es la costumbre de saltar por encima de las brasas tres veces para conseguir salud y felicidad.”

And that provides the etymologist a nice segue to Latin, in which language verbena meant ‘foliage, herbage; the leaves, twigs, and branches of laurel, olive, or myrtle, cypress, tamarisk; sacred boughs.’ The word traces farther back, to Indo-European *werb- or *werbh- ‘to turn, to bend,’ which is what foliage and herbage do. The Romans used such foliage in religious ceremonies, and that is most likely the source of the ‘festival in honor of a saint’ sense that verbena has in Spanish.

In the late Renaissance, when European botanists were busy categorizing every plant species they could find, Linnaeus, the categorizer-in-chief, chose Verbena officinalis to designate a species of flowering plant for which the Romans themselves had used the term verbena or verbenaca, even though it wasn’t the ‘laurel, olive, myrtle, cypress, tamarisk’ or other ‘sacred boughs’ that the word had originally described. (The practice of recycling words is hardly something new: using the name of a little rodent to designate a device that moves the pointer on a computer screen is a recent example of that ancient tradition.)

Botanists have determined that only a few species of verbena are native to Europe, but there are some 200 in North and South America. One that is common throughout the Great Plains that cover much of the center of North America is prairie verbena, Glandularia bipinnatifida. It grows as far south as central Texas, where I live, and is flourishing now even though months of little rain have made the spring of 2011 a relatively poor season for wildflowers in a region renowned for them. But I’ll propose to my conciudadanos that we celebrate the floral delights that we do have here this spring, and in the process create a verbena de verbena. My relevant bit of reverence is to have lain on the ground yesterday to take a series of celebratory photographs of a dense colony of those flowers; may the following photograph of verbena reverberate in your memory.

A colony of prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida) in Round Rock, Texas

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

madreselva – madre = selva

Yesterday’s post about madreselva ‘honeysuckle’ mentioned that the second component of the Spanish word comes from Latin silva, which meant ‘forest, woods, woodland.’ The Romans sometimes spelled the word sylva, which appears in the English version of names like Transilvania/Transylvania ‘beyond the forest’ and Pensilvania/Pennsylvania ‘Penn’s woods.’ The derived Latin adjective silvaticus meant ‘having to do with forests or woods’ and by extension ‘running wild, wild.’ Vulgar Latin changed the word to salvaticus, a form that evolved through Catalan salvatge to become Spanish salvaje and through Old French sauvage to become English savage. Life in the woods and in nature in general can indeed be savage, as the photograph of a robber fly preying on a hapless skipper butterfly confirms. The tiny bright red “balloon” on the tail of the robber fly is a parasitic mite unwittingly avenging the butterfly by preying on its savage predator.

A parasitic mite preying on a robber fly that's preying on a skipper butterfly

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

madreselva

Driving back and forth for the past couple of weeks on the freeway that runs north-south on the western side of Austin where I live, I couldn’t help but notice a string of blossoming redbud trees along the road’s eastern fringe. (Do I get extra points for squeezing all four of the cardinal directions into that sentence?) Color words are notoriously subjective, so I’ll let those of you who aren’t familiar with this tree, Cercis canadensis, know that its buds and blossoms are actually a pinkish lavender, not red.

In any case, the other day, before the trees’ blooms could fade, I finally grabbed my heavy camera bag and drove to a side street, parked, and walked over to the redbuds to try to get some good pictures of them. To my happy surprise, in the underbrush beneath one of the trees I discovered a native plant that isn’t rare but that I’ve seldom come across in the wild in Austin, Lonicera sempervirens. Spanish calls the vines in this genus madreselva, from madre, the cognate of native English mother, and selva ‘woods, forest’ (compare the borrowed English adjective sylvan ‘pertaining to the forest’). Joan Corominas explained the origin of the poetic  Spanish name, first attested in the year 982: this ‘mother of the forest,’ he noted, like a human mother “con sus ramos sarmentosos abraza otras plantas,” which is to say that with its twining shoots it embraces other plants.

The English word for the members of the genus Lonicera is etymologically unrelated to the Spanish term, but it also rests on a maternal metaphor. English says honeysuckle, which conjures up the image of a mother nursing her baby in a way that’s as sweet as honey. The plant that I found in Austin, known colloquially by the colorful name coral honeysuckle, doesn’t have the intoxicatingly sweet fragrance of the white-flowered Japanese honeysuckle that has taken over in many parts of the United States. Nevertheless, I think you’ll agree that the native species, producing elongated buds and flowers that with their saturated color truly live up to the name redbud, presents a much more striking appearance than the pale invasive, especially when played off against the blossoms of the (misleadingly named) tree and the (accurately described) blue sky above them.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) beneath a blossoming redbud tree (Cercis canadensis)

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Azor(es)

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.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

hormiga

Yesterday’s post dealt with áfidos/aphids and the ants that herd them, so it seems reasonable today to talk about the Spanish word for ‘ant,’ hormiga. Like Spanish horma, which developed from forma, hormiga used to be formiga (which is still the Portuguese form); the older Spanish formiga had developed from formica, the Latin word that meant ‘ant.’

English formic can mean ‘having to do with ants,’ but more commonly the adjective appears in the phrase ácido fórmico/formic acid, which was given its name because it occurs naturally in red ants. While ants have been known to walk on countertops, Wikipedia says that Herbert A. Faber, one of the two men who in 1912 invented the Formica® laminate used in countertops, chose the product’s name because the new material served as a substitute for mica.

Spanish hormiguero is ‘a nest of ants, an anthill,’ and an oso hormiguero is ‘an anteater’ (which, despite the oso, is not any type of bear). The wonderful Spanish verb hormiguear means ‘to feel as if ants are crawling on a part of one’s body’ (English exits the animal kingdom and calls that ‘pins and needles’). By extension, Spanish hormiguear means ‘to run about like ants, to swarm.’

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

áfido

The recent fall weather in Austin has been gorgeous, and yesterday, for the baker’s dozenth time this October, I went out to see what natural wonders I could photograph. What first caught my attention was some poverty weed, a type of native bush that turns all plumy this time of year; but as sometimes happens, when I got close, I noticed something more interesting than what first attracted me. Near the tip of one willowy branch of the poverty weed I saw that some ants were herding a group of yellow aphids.

 

“Okay,” you say, “I may let you get away with saying baker’s dozenth instead of thirteenth, but herding? People can and do herd cattle, but can one type of insect herd another? Don’t insects prey on other insects?” According to the best sources—which is to say the ones I’ve been able to find without looking very hard—ants have occasionally been seen to eat aphids, but much more commonly the two creatures exhibit what biologists call mutualism. Aphids extract juices from plants, and in the process they excrete a sweet-tasting substance appropriately called honeydew, which ants are crazy for. The ants keep aphids around for that delicious bounty, and they really do herd them. Ants will sometimes pick aphids up and move them to a place where juices are more plentiful, even to a healthier plant in the vicinity. In return for having a continuing source of sweet food, the ants will attempt to fight off or kill any aphid predator that comes along, and during the winter some ants protect aphid eggs from the cold by storing them in their own underground nest.

“Fascinating,” you say, “but I’m reading this column to learn about etymology, not entomology.” All right, I was coming to that. Linnaeus, the great 18th-century categorizer of plants, created the genus name Aphis, with stem Aphid-, as if it were a Greek noun, but why he chose what we now call an áfido/aphid isn’t clear. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “a number of conjectures are offered…, the least improbable being that the plural is for Greek apheides… ‘unsparing, lavishly bestowed’ (? in reference to their prodigious rate of production, or to their voracity)….”

Spanish more commonly calls an áfido a pulgón, basing the word on pulga ‘flea,’ even though aphids don’t bite people the way fleas do. English has called the aphid a plant louse, whose first word differentiates it from the type of louse that plagues people; English has also used the term ant-cow, which captures the herding nature of the ant-aphid relationship.

©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.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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