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 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



I assure you there’s no connection between Spanish asurar and English assure. When I recently encountered asurar for the first time, my mind leapt to make that connection, even though I knew assure and sure came into English from French, where those words had followed a phonological development Spanish didn’t share. Not even knowing the meaning of asurar when I came across it, I turned to the DRAE, where I learned that it occurs primarily in cooking and agriculture. In cooking, this transitive verb means ‘to burn,’ as when cooking with insufficient water burns the food in a pot on the stove. In agriculture, the ‘burning, parching’ is what the sun does to crops that don’t get enough water.

The DRAE traces asurar back to the Latin noun arsūra, whose first r, later lost in Spanish, gives English speakers a clue to a connection. According to the DRAE, Latin arsūra meant ‘heat, burning.’ I couldn’t verify the existence of such a Latin noun, even in my large Latin dictionary. Hmm. In any case, the connection still holds, because the Latin verb ārdēre, which meant ‘to burn,’ had ārsura as its feminine future participle. Late Latin created the noun ārsiō, with stem ārsiōn-, which led, via Anglo Norman, to the English word arson. The classical Latin verb ārdēre has given Spanish arder ‘to burn,’ from whose old present participle Spanish has the adjective ardiente. Paralleling that, English has ardent, from the Latin present participle. Spanish also has the interesting compound aguardiente, literally ‘burning water,’ but figuratively and actually ‘liquor’ in general and ‘brandy’ in particular.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Dos mangos por el precio de uno

Spanish has two unrelated words mango. One is the fruit that’s reported to be by far the most widely consumed in the world. The word is identical in English, which allows as a plural not just mangos, as in Spanish, but also mangoes. You couldn’t be blamed for assuming that English borrowed mango directly from Spanish; nevertheless, and surprisingly, the transfer went in the opposite direction. Before imparting mango to Spanish, English had picked it up from Portuguese manga, which referred to the fruit of the tree. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Portuguese acquired the word “from Malayalam māa or a kindred Dravidian source.” Many of the languages of southern India are in the Dravidian family, and we remind ourselves that during the Age of Exploration the Portuguese sailed around Africa to reach India and set up trading stations along the coasts of the subcontinent.

The other Spanish mango means ‘handle’ and is a native word descended from Vulgar Latin *manĭcus, a derivative of the manus that evolved to the synonymous Spanish mano ‘hand.’ Notice the parallel in English handle coming from hand.

For more about Spanish mano, check out the post Mano a mano that appeared here in 2012.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Another savory etymology

When Jim at How I See It recently requested an article about the origin of savory, I initially thought he meant the herb, rather than the adjective meaning ‘tasty, flavorful.’ As the previous post dealt with that savory, it seems appropriate to look into the other one. When I delved into the origin of the English noun, I found that it began as Latin saturēia and evolved to Old French sarree. Middle English borrowed that as saverey, which has changed hardly at all on its way to modern English savory. Armed with that knowledge, I thought I might not be able to continue with an article for this column because when I looked up the Spanish name for the herb and found it to be ajedrea, a connection to the English word didn’t seem likely. If anything, ajedrea struck me as coming from Arabic (compare ajedrez). I was right about the Arabic origin: the DRAE traces ajedrea to the Hispanic Arabic forms aššaṭríyya and aššiṭríyya. It turns out, though, that the Arabs had originally taken their word from Latin saturēia, so savory and ajedrea really are cognates, even if sound changes in both lines of development have obscured the relationship.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

A savory etymology

Jim at How I See It recently requested a post about the origin of savory. I was unsure which of the two unrelated English words savory he meant, so I asked. He confirmed that he meant the word that designates one of the subsenses of taste. Western science has only recently added savory—known in Japanese as umami—to the subsenses of sweet, bitter, sour, and salty.* As salty is the English adjective formed from salt, so savory is the adjective made from savor. Here are the definitions of savor given in the grand 1913 Webster’s:

1. That property of a thing which affects the organs of taste or smell; taste and odor; flavor; relish; scent; as, the savor of an orange or a rose; an ill savor. “I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.” — Shak[espeare].
2. Hence, specific flavor or quality; characteristic property; distinctive temper, tinge, taint, and the like. “Why is not my life a continual joy, and the savor of heaven perpetually upon my spirit? ” — Baxter.
3. Sense of smell; power to scent, or trace by scent.
4. Pleasure; delight; attractiveness. “She shall no savor have therein but lite.” — Chaucer.

Middle English borrowed savour (which is still the British spelling) from Old French, where it had evolved from the synonymous Latin noun sapor that we recognize as the ancestor of the little-changed Spanish sabor ‘taste, flavor.’ Latin sapor came from the root found also in the verb sapere, which meant ‘to taste’ and which had developed from the Indo-European root *sep- ‘to taste, to perceive.’ Even in Roman times, based on the notion that tasting something is one way to learn about it, the Latin verb sapere had added the meanings ‘to have sense or discernment; to be sensible, discreet, prudent, wise,’ and then more generally ‘to know.’ That, of course, is the primary meaning of the important Spanish verb saber.

Corresponding to savory as an English name for the recently accepted fifth subsense of taste, Spanish says sabroso; both languages also use Japanese umami. Curiously, the DRAE gives a colloquial sense of sabroso as ‘ligerament salado,’ which is to say ‘lightly salted.’ I suspect that that meaning developed before the acceptance in the West of umami as a fifth subsense of taste. English has extended the sense of savory to ‘morally exemplary.’ Similarly, its negative, unsavory, has both literal and moral senses.

* For more on that, and to learn about other candidates for subsenses of taste, you’re welcome to read a Live Science article.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


The Spanish noun surco means ‘furrow.’ Try as I would, no English relative came to mind, so I looked up the etymology of surco and found it developed from the synonymous Latin sulcus, from the same root as in the verb sulcāre that meant ‘to plow.’ Once I saw that the original had an l rather than an r, there was no more need to sulk: I searched again and found that in the technical vocabulary of anatomy, sulcus is used to mean ‘any of the narrow grooves in an organ or tissue, especially those that mark the convolutions on the surface of the brain.’ A sulculus is ‘a small sulcus.’ The adjective sulcal means ‘of or relating to a sulcus.’ Sulciform obviously means ‘having the form of a sulcus,’ while sulcate means more generally ‘having deep narrow furrows or grooves.’ With reference to a foot or hoof, bisulcate or bisulcous is ‘cloven.’ In botany, something trisulcate ‘has three grooves or furrows,’ while in zoology the word means ‘having three digits.’ Anything ‘with many grooves or furrows’ is multisulcate.

Returning to Spanish, the verb surcar can have the literal sense ‘to make furrows in the ground’ or the extended sense ‘to create marks or structures that look like furrows.’ The synonymous Latinate verb asulcar exists but has fallen out of use.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


Last week in a blog post about rocks on the coast of Cornwall I came across the word bajada. I’d never seen it used in English, so I checked and found that sure enough, some English dictionaries do include it. For example,, based on the Random House Dictionary, defines the term as ‘an alluvial plain formed at the base of a mountain by the coalescing of several alluvial fans.’ That dictionary even gives a good etymology: “1865-70, Americanism; < Spanish: slope, swoop, orig. feminine past participle of bajar to descend < Vulgar Latin *bassiāre, derivative of Late Latin bassus short, low. The adjective bassus led not only to Spanish bajo but also, via Old French, to English base in the senses ‘of low morals; of low quality.’ In addition, Late Latin bassus is the source of the English bass that means ‘having a low pitch or deep tone.’ A conjecture basing the English and Spanish noun base ‘the lowest part’ on the same Late Latin bassus turns out to be false; that base goes back to Greek basis.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

The vocabularily delicious “advectitious”

Several times in this column I’ve talked about the vagaries of Internet searches. One close encounter occurred when I went to, typed in advectitious, and was asked whether I really meant adventitious. I’ve got nothing against adventitious—some of my most treasured finds on the Internet and elsewhere are adventicios/adventitious—but I really did mean advectitious, a word I’d just come across for the first time.

The root is vect-, from the past participle of the Latin verb vehere that meant ‘to carry, to bring.’ Related words are vector, literally ‘a carrier’; and convección/convection, which is ‘a process of transfer or transmission, as of heat or electricity, by means of currents in liquids or gases,’ e.g. in a convection oven.

The prefix in advectitious is the Latin ad that meant ‘to,’ just like its Spanish descendant a (which also can have the same sense as its native English cognate at). With reference to a location or system or style under discussion, something advectitious has been ‘carried to’ or ‘brought to’ it from a place where it is normally found; the advectitious thing is usually considered inappropriate in the new location. For example, writing in 1904, American architect Joy Wheeler Dow said in her book American Renaissance:

In my own very limited scope of usefulness, I am quite willing to confess that I have never bothered about style, and do not consider that I have any worth mentioning; although, I suppose, an occasional architect is annoyed past endurance by somebody who comes with an illustration of a particular piece of my work which has appeared in the magazines, requesting that my style be copied. Of course, it is not my style that is desired, but the expression of Anglo-Saxon home feeling as opposed to whatever is advectitious—out of place there—however correct academically, and according to the rules of harmony, good form or anything else you choose to call it.

Spanish speakers seem to have avoided importing *advecticioso into their language, where it might well be advectitious. Although advectitious has existed in English, it certainly isn’t common now. It’s one of those words that turn up in large dictionaries but rarely make their way outside them, like the rhyming deglutitious, satellitious, and even—tra la!—tralatitious.

While Spanish lacks the adjective *advecticioso, it does have the noun advección, which means ‘the action or effect of carrying or dragging something.’ In particular, as science uses the word, advección/advection is ‘the [usually horizontal] movement of a mass of fluid.’ Local weather, for example, changes after the advection of warm or cold air into the region. Corresponding to that noun is advectivo/advective, which we can’t help noticing is an adjetivo/adjective.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


It would be easy to assume that the English verb regale is related to the one-letter-shorter adjective regal, so that regale could be taken to mean ‘to treat like a king.’ That’s not the case, however. English acquired regale, as Spanish apparently did regalar ‘to give as a gift,’ from French régaler, which came from the Old French noun regal that meant ‘feast’ and that was based on the verb galer ‘to make merry.’ From the Old French noun gale ‘rejoicing, merrymaking’ came Spanish and English (and Italian) gala.

The present participle of Old French galer, galant, is the source of galante/gallant. Going farther back, we find that the verb galer was of Germanic origin, a descendant of the Indo-European root *wel- that meant ‘to wish, to will.’ Naturally I wish you’re happy to have been regaled with these latest facts from the gallant world of etymology.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Tú and thou

The Spanish second-person-singular familiar subject pronoun has as its native English cognate thou. The object forms of the pronoun match up as well: te in Spanish, thee in English. The corresponding possessive adjectives are Spanish tu and English thy. All the English forms are obsolete but survive in old versions of the Bible and in other literature and documents that people still read. Or maybe “obsolete” is too strong a word because modern writers sometimes resort to the old forms to give their words an archaic feel. For example, Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on the Wire,” written in the 1960s, includes the lines “I have saved all my ribbons for thee” and “I will make it all up to thee.”

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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