I recently encountered the noun coquina on an English-language blog. Pursuing the word, I found a Wikipedia article defining coquina as “a sedimentary rock that is composed either wholly or almost entirely of the transported, abraded, and mechanically-sorted fragments of the shells of molluscs, trilobites, brachiopods, or other invertebrates.” That geological sense came about as an extended use of Spanish coquina, which at its most literal refers to wedge-shaped clams in the genus Donax.

French readers will recognize the relationship of coquina to coquille, which English has also borrowed and which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘a scallop-shaped dish or a scallop shell in which various seafood dishes are browned and served.’ That dictionary traces the French term back to conchȳlia, a plural of the conchȳlium that the Romans made from Greek konkhulion. That diminutive meant ‘shellfish.’ The basic word was konkhos, which has made its way into English as conch and into Spanish as concha. Coquina seems to have arisen in Spanish as a diminutive of concha.

By the way, coquille already existed in Old French, where the -ll- retained its l-ness and hadn’t yet turned into a y-sound. That accounts for the fact that the first time English borrowed coquille it was in the Middle English form cokel, which has become cockle.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


I recently came across the past participle of a Spanish verb I didn’t recognize, agrietar. When I looked it up in the DRAE I found it defined as ‘Abrir grietas o hendiduras,’ which is a semi-circular definition, with the noun grieta obviously based on the same root as agrietar. As hendidura is ‘a crack, a break, agrietar means ‘to crack, to break,’ and the noun grieta is ‘a crack, fissure, break.’ Delving into the etymology, I found that grieta had changed slightly from Old Spanish crieta, which had developed from Vulgar Latin *crepta, a syncopated version of Latin crepita, the feminine past participle of crepāre, ‘to burst, crack.’

From the past participle of crepāre Latin created the frequentative form crepitāre, whose meanings were ‘to rattle, creak, crackle, clatter, rustle, rumble, chatter, murmur.’ French borrowed that Latin verb as crépiter, and then Spanish borrowed the French verb as crepitar, with the meanings ‘to crackle, sizzle,’ particularly with respect to fire.

Continuing our story of past participles, Latin had attached as a prefix to crepitus to create the adjective dēcrepitus ‘worn out, feeble,’ which English has borrowed as decrepit. Spanish seems to lack that adjective, but has the verb decrepitar that means, with respect to salt, ‘to crackle when put over a fire.’ Another translation is ‘to calcine salt until it has ceased to crackle in the fire.’ In that sense English likewise has the technical verb decrepitate.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The English term will-o’-the-wisp means, to quote the definition in Wordsmyth, ‘a phosphorescent light that appears to hover over marshes at night, possibly arising from spontaneous combustion of marsh gases.’ The phrase used to be will of the wisp, and before that will with the wisp. Wordsmyth defines wisp as ‘a thin bundle, bunch, tuft, streak, or the like, as of straw, hair, or smoke,’ which makes sense as a description of the hazy atmospheric occurrence. But what about will? There’s no reason to think it’s the will that expresses volition or futurity, but let’s suspend judgment on that for the time being. (And speaking of judgment, mine is that in America we ought to spell the word the way the British do: judgement, with the e that indicates a “soft” g.)

The first part of will-o’-the-wisp turns out to be the name Will, apparently chosen as a personification of the mysterious phenomenon in the same sort of way that Jack got chosen for jack-o’-lantern, but with the bonus of the alliteration in will with the wisp (in fact that may have been too much alliteration, as the change to will of the wisp implies).

The male name Will is short for William, from French Guillaume, and finally we see a connection to Spanish, which renders the name Guillermo. The Spanish and French forms go back to Medieval Latin Guillelmus or Gilgelmus, but they had come from Old High German Willahelm. Historical German names usually consisted of two elements, and that was the case here. The first part was wil, meaning ‘will, desire,’ so indirectly that is the will in will-o’-the-wisp. Latin velle ‘to want’ was a native cognate, and from that root we have volición/volition.

The second part of the Germanic compound was helm, meaning ‘helmet’ or more generally ‘protection.’ Germanic helm led to Old French helme, whose diminutive has become English helmet. The Germanic word similarly entered into Spanish, which has retained it as yelmo.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Remembering subvenir

The infrequently encountered Spanish verb subvenir, borrowed from Latin, means ‘to come to the aid of, to support.’ The word is a compound of Latin sub, in its sense of ‘up from under,’ and venīre, the forerunner of Spanish venir ‘to come.’ Most native English speakers would say there’s no such English verb as subvene. There is, but it’s uncommon, and not a lot of current English dictionaries include it. One that does is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which notes the verb is rare and defines it as ‘to happen or come, so as to help.’ A little more common is the derived noun subvención/subvention; that’s the ‘subsidy’ that one entity, usually a government, gives to another to support it. (Notice again the ‘up from under’ sense conveyed by sub- in the subsidy and support that prop something up.)

The French development of Latin subvenīre is the verb souvenir, in which something comes up from the storehouse of our mind into our consciousness; in other words, souvenir means ‘to remember.’ As a noun, a souvenir is something we take or buy in order to remember a place. Like English, Spanish has borrowed the French noun souvenir, but normally Spanish speakers use the native recuerdo, which is etymologically ‘something that brings a person or place back (re-) into our heart (cor[azón].’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The Latin adjective blandus meant ‘of a smooth tongue, flattering, fawning, caressing,’ senses that continued on into the Latin verb blandīrī, the source of French blandir and from it the English blandish that means ‘to coax, cajole, flatter mildly as a means to get someone to do something.’ Spanish lacks a descendant of that verb but has carried over blandus as blando, though with a shift in meaning from the Latin original. The DRAE gives these senses for blando:

Que cede fácilmente a la presión del tacto. [Easily yielding to the touch, i.e. soft.]

Suave, benigno, apacible. [Soft, benign, even-tempered, placid, mild.]

Dicho de una persona: Pusilánime, de carácter débil. [Said of a person: pusillanimous, having a weak character.]

The English adjective bland has also changed from the original Latin blandus that it was borrowed from. The 1913 Webster’s gave this as its first definition: ‘Having soft and soothing qualities; not drastic or irritating; not stimulating; as, a bland oil; a bland diet.’ The dictionary’s second definition was ‘Mild; soft; gentle; smooth and soothing in manner; suave; as, a bland temper; bland persuasion; a bland sycophant.’ In the century since then, bland has turned more negative. Recent senses of the word include: ‘uninteresting, insipid, boring.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


In my other blog a few days ago I featured a plant with the scientific name Cimicifuga. I recognized that as botanical Latin for ‘makes bedbugs flee,’ with the first element coming from the Latin stem cimic- ‘bedbug.’ That noun evolved to Spanish chinche, which in addition to its literal sense has taken on the colloquial meaning of ‘an annoying, bothersome person.’ That sense is also conveyed by the adjective chinchoso and the verb chinchar, which means ‘to bother, to annoy.’

Spanish chinche has passed into English as chinch, a word found primarily in the South and Midland of the United States. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Midland as ‘A region of the United States whose northern border extends roughly from southern New Jersey to Illinois and whose southern border extends roughly from North Carolina to eastern Oklahoma, viewed especially as a dialect region of American English.’ That said, I remember growing up with chinch bugs (the phrase, not the insects) on Long Island.

Regional English chinchy, by the way, which means ‘stingy,’ is unrelated. It’s a variant of chintzy, which has its origins in the fabric from India known at chintz.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


Precio, the Spanish word for ‘price,’ evolved directly from the synonymous Latin noun pretium. It’s natural to assume that English price traces back to the same Latin source, and so it does, via the intermediary of Old French pris. There’s a surprise, though, in the form of an English doublet, praise. Middle English preise was based on the Old French verb preisier, which developed from Late Latin pretiāre ‘to prize,’ which had been coined on the root of pretium. To praise, then, is etymologically to attach a price to something as a token of its worth. But wait: prize itself came into being as a variant of Old French pris, so we’re really dealing with English triplets. Praise be to etymology.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


A glance at The Superior Person’s Book of Words sent me scurrying to a dictionary to find out what vapulation means—or at most meant, because the word is hardly current now and probably never was. Even as far back as 1828, Noah Webster noted in his dictionary that vapulation was no longer in use, but he nevertheless defined it as ‘the act of beating or whipping.’ The 1913 Webster’s repeated that definition and likewise called the word obsolete, but also noted that it came from the Latin verb vapulare, which a Latin-English dictionary translates as ‘to get a whipping, to be flogged, to be beaten.’ As an example of how this rare word has been used, consider this passage from Derek Hudson’s 1943 book Thomas Barnes of the Times:

According to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, Spanish borrowed Latin vapulare as the almost unchanged vapular, though the variant vapulear is now apparently the usual form; the dictionary gives its first meaning as ‘zarandear de un lado a otro a alguien o algo,’ i.e. ‘to shake or knock someone or something from side to side.’ A second meaning is ‘golpear o dar repetidamente contra alguien o algo,’ i.e. ‘to hit or strike someone or something.’ The verb has the figurative sense ‘to criticize harshly’ (which accords with that of vapulation in Thomas Barnes of the Times). The corresponding Spanish noun vápulo is ‘a whipping, flogging, beating, shaking’; Cervantes used the word twice in Don Quijote.

As for the English verb vapulate, it appeared in the 1806 Dictionary of the Synonymous Words and Technical Terms in the English language. Author James Leslie included it as one of many words meaning ‘to beat.’ Here’s the full list, which I trust will be a pleasure and not a vapulation for you to read: “To pommel, to bang, to sugillate, to tew, to thwack, to trounce, to vanquish, to vapulate, to repercuss, to buffet, to curry, to firk, to fease or feaze, to lamm, to bray, to drub, to baste, to batter, to maul, to nubble, to belabour, to bump, to cane.”

I first investigated vapular/vapulate in 2011. In doing a search now, five years later, I was surprised to find a page on the Internet that raises the question of the difference between beat and vapulate. I’m sure that question comes up a lot.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


The common English verb want may not seem to have any relatives in Spanish, but there are some. The first step in finding connections is to realize that the ‘desire’ sense of want isn’t the original one. The original meaning is still alive in the expression to want for that means ‘to lack.’ Lacking something implies being in need, and that need creates a desire for the thing. So it was that the meaning of want expanded to include the ‘desire’ sense that has become the predominant one.

As basic as English want is, the word came into the language from Old Norse vanta. The American Heritage Dictionary traces that back to a suffixed form of the Indo-European root euə-, which meant ‘to leave, abandon,’ and which had derivatives expressing the notions ‘lacking, empty.’ One native English derivative is wane. The Latin derivative vānus, meaning ’empty,’ is the source of Spanish vano and, via Old French, English vain.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


Once in a while a word comes to have opposite meanings. The adjective especioso/specious is such a word. Compare the pairs of definitions in the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española:

1. Apparently right; superficially fair, just, or correct, but not so in reality; appearing well at first view; plausible; as, specious reasoning; a specious argument.
2. Presenting a pleasing appearance; pleasing in form or look; showy.

1. Hermoso, precioso, perfecto.
2. Aparente, engañoso.

Here are the main translations that Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gave for speciōsus:

Good-looking, showy, handsome, beautiful, splendid, brilliant.

In a secondary definition of the Latin adjective we see the genesis, even in Roman times, of the negative sense:

Well-sounding, plausible, specious.

In other words, something especioso/specious looks pleasant enough and is therefore plausible (i.e. applaudable), but someone has created the attractive appearance as a way to hide the truth.

The negative sense of specious has driven out the ‘showy’ one in modern English, but apparently not in Spanish, where the DRAE gives the positive definition first. And botanists have preserved the positive sense in species names like Ungnadia speciosa and Oenothera speciosa.

As for Latin speciōsus itself, that adjective was based on the root found in the verb specere ‘to look at,’ with past participle spectus, about which much more could be said.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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