Those who know me or have seen the other blog I recently started know that I often engage in light-writing (and English can make the play-on-words contrast with light writing, which is to say writing of a type that is humorous or not of much substance). And those who have done some etymologizing may guess that by light-writing I mean photography, a term made up in 1839 by the English scientist Sir John Herschel, based on Greek phot- ‘light’ and graphe ‘writing.’ Many other languages quickly borrowed the English word, with Spanish rendering it fotografía. But Spanish fotografía also has a closely related sense that English differentiates with photograph, a term that Herschel also used in 1839. The word for ‘an individual representation created by using photography’ frequently comes in Spanish with an indefinite article, una fotografía, often shortened to una foto (making foto one of those uncommon Spanish words ending in -o that are feminine). English speakers learning Spanish may be tempted to think that fotógrafo means ‘photograph,’ when in fact it means ‘a person who creates a photograph,’ for which English says photographer. Corresponding to the abstract noun fotografía/photography is the adjective fotográfico/photographic.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


With respect to a circle, students of geometry learn that the line called the secante/secant is one that cuts across the circle in two places. The name isn’t arbitrary: the word is the present participle of the Latin verb secare ‘to cut,’ so the secant line is a ‘cutting’ line. As Latin evolved to Spanish, secare became segar, whose basic meaning is ‘to cut down ripe grain or other plants with a sickle, scythe, or other dedicated instrument; to reap, to harvest, to crop.’ The verb can also mean ‘to cut off something that sticks out,’ including, for someone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, a head. More generally segar is ‘to cut off or interrupt quickly or abruptly.’

Spanish segador is literally ‘someone or something that harvests,’ but the word has a specialized meaning in zoology, where it designates what English has similarly called a harvestman, though the term daddy-longlegs is more familiar to most English speakers. The creature in question is an invertebrate that people might at first glance take for a long-legged spider, and although it does have eight legs, its tiny body has only one section, unlike the two major sections (abdomen and cephalothorax) of a spider. The name segador/harvestman apparently comes from the resemblance of each of the little animal’s elongated, thin, conspicuously jointed legs to a scythe or sickle.

A harvestman on a harvester

Before I cut off this post, I’d like to point out that English sickle, mentioned twice in the paragraphs above in conjunction with cutting grain or other plants, developed from Old English sicol. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed that word from Vulgar Latin sicila, a variant of the classical Latin secula that had the same root as secare ‘to cut’ and that meant ‘a sickle.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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


Late last week the Austin area finally got rain, from one to four inches of it, depending on the location. We’ve been in a drought here, so I welcomed the rainfall, not only for its own sake but because it meant that within a few days the first rain-lilies (Cooperia pedunculata) of the season would make an appearance. Appear they did, and in one happily un-built-on place in my neighborhood where rain-lilies had sprung up in springtimes past I reveled in a colony a couple of hundred strong. Reveled is the right word: it conveys an immediacy befitting the rain-lily, whose pristine white flower lasts only a day or so before an initial tinge of pink on its petals’ tips has spread and darkened in synchrony with the flower’s fading.

A rain-lily as it's just beginning to fade

The rain-lily grows from a bulb. The English word lily grew from Old English lilie, which the Anglo-Saxons transplanted from Latin lilium. Spanish says lirio, which might seem to have come from the Greek leirion that also meant ‘lily.’ But no, Spanish lirio developed from Latin lilium, with an alternation from l to r occurring along the way. As for Latin lilium, it could have come from Greek leirion, but with an alternation from r to l; etymologists also hold out the possibility that both ancient words came independently from a non-Indo-European language of the Mediterranean, which might have been Egyptian.

Though the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and fell on the Greeks and the Romans, and though those ancient peoples knew the leirion and the lilium, they never saw a rain-lily, which is strictly an American wildflower.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Volviendo a convólvulo

The title of today’s post is misleading—how can I return to something I’ve never discussed?—but I hope you’ll suspend your disbelief, withhold your criticism, and turn with me to the topic at hand. Spanish volver ‘to return, go back’ developed from Latin volvere, whose meanings included ‘to roll, turn about, turn round, tumble’ and figuratively ‘to turn [something] over [in your mind], to ponder, meditate upon.’ To that Latin verb the Romans prefixed con- ‘together with’ to create the compound convolvere, which meant ‘to roll, wind, or twist together; to coil; to wrap around.’ For whatever reason, Spanish has neither inherited nor borrowed *convolver, but English has carried the Latin verb over as convolve, whose meanings are ‘to roll together, twist together, curl up.’

To the stem of the verb convolvere the Romans added a diminutive ending to create the noun convolvulus, which they applied to one thing in the animal world and another in the plant world; Spanish has followed suit with convólvulo. In the realm of insects, a convólvulo is ‘a certain type of caterpillar that wraps itself up in a grape vine leaf,’ and in the plant kingdom a convólvulo is ‘a certain type of twining vine.’ Botanists have gone even further, taking Latin convolvulus and adding yet another suffix: the resulting Convolvuláceas/Convolvulaceae serves as the name of the botanical family that includes the Spanish convólvulo vine and its many twining relatives. In particular, botanists use Convolvulus itself as the name of one genus in that family.

In central Texas, where I live, the most common species in the genus Convolvulus is Convolvulus equitans, which English-speaking settlers in these here parts contemptuously named Texas bindweed. Bind to other plants (including crops) it certainly does, but one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower, and I’m a man of the second kind. Look at the following photograph, taken from above.

Texas bindweed, Convolvulus equitans

Or look at this one, taken from below, and choose: weed or wildflower?

The base of a flower of Texas bindweed, Convolvulus equitans.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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


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


The first work in which the fictional character Sherlock Holmes appeared was A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887. In that novel a man has been found dead, and a police inspector named Lestrade comes to investigate. The narrator, Dr. Watson, writes:

“I have remarked that the [wall]paper had fallen away in parts. In this particular corner of the room a large piece had peeled off, leaving a yellow square of coarse plastering. Across this bare space there was scrawled in blood-red letters a single word:


“‘What do you think of that?’ cried the detective, with the air of a showman exhibiting his show. ‘This was overlooked because it was in the darkest corner of the room, and no one thought of looking there. The murderer has written it with his or her own blood. See this smear where it has trickled down the wall! That disposes of the idea of suicide anyhow. Why was that corner chosen to write it on? I will tell you. See that candle on the mantelpiece. It was lit at the time, and if it was lit this corner would be the brightest instead of the darkest portion of the wall.’

“‘And what does it mean now that you have found it?’ asked Gregson [another police inspector] in a depreciatory voice.

“‘Mean? Why, it means that the writer was going to put the female name Rachel, but was disturbed before he or she had time to finish. You mark my words, when this case comes to be cleared up, you will find that a woman named Rachel has something to do with it. It’s all very well for you to laugh, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. You may be very smart and clever, but the old hound is the best, when all is said and done.'”

Readers familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon known that the official detective is usually wrong, and Sherlock Holmes usually right. It turns out that Rache is not short for Rachel, but, as Holmes points out, is a German word meaning ‘revenge.’

And you, dear reader of this canon of words, what do you make of the title of today’s posting, ocelo? Will you be an etymological Lestrade and say that it is an unfinished version of the word for the type of large cat called an ocelote/ocelot?

Or will you, Holmes-like, write that off as being too obvious and instead surmise that ocelo probably has something to do with yesterday’s posting about ojal ‘buttonhole’ and the word it was derived from, ojo ‘eye’? This second is the better, i.e. correct, choice. Spanish ojo developed from Latin oculus, a diminutive whose basic form—which might have been something like *ocus—didn’t survive prehistoric Latin. Once oculus lost its diminutiveness and became the basic word for ‘eye,’  Latin formed the new diminutive ocellus. English has borrowed that Latin word outright, and Spanish has converted it to ocelo; both designate ‘a marking that looks like an eye,’ as for instance on a butterfly or a peacock’s tail.

A picture may or may not be worth a thousand words, or however many are in today’s posting, but the photograph below does show the ocelos/ocelli on the wings of a hackberry emperor butterfly. (And this is the third time, after the entries about áfido and hormiga, that a column about etymology gets to cross the line into entomology.)

A hackberry emperor butterfly (Asterocampa celtis) has ocelos/ocelli on its wings.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman


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

%d bloggers like this: