To give is to receive

The previous post talked about some words derived from the Latin verb habitāre that meant ‘inhabit, dwell.’ If we go farther back, we find habitāre itself was a frequentative verb that the Romans created from the stem of habitus, the past participle of the important verb habēre ‘to possess, have, hold’ that became Spanish haber but that in spite of the striking coincidence in form and meaning is completely unrelated to English have. No kidding. If you’d like more information about English have and its origins, you can check out a post that appeared here in 2014.

If we push even further back, we find that Latin habēre descended from the Indo-European root *ghabh- (or *ghebh-), which, as a good example of the duality principle, could mean both ‘to receive’ and ‘to give.’ There can be no receiving if someone isn’t simultaneously giving. The ‘receiving’ end of the spectrum came down into Latin habēre. Then there was a further shift in semantics: after you’ve received something, you have it. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘giving’ sense of Indo-European *ghebh- is apparent in native English give and the corresponding noun gift, which came from Old Norse. There’s also forgive, a compound of give.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

A Spanish word is an English word is a Latin word as a verb becomes a noun

I was recently looking at the website for the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation in Ecuador and noticed these words: “Trabajamos en la conservación del hábitat….” What jumped out at me was the word hábitat, which I took to be borrowed directly from English, even to the accent indicating the same stress as in the English word. I may or may not be right about Spanish taking the word from English; English took it directly from Latin, where habitat is the third-person singular present-tense form of the verb habitāre that we’ve carried over as habitar/inhabit. Starting several centuries ago, Latin biological descriptions included the word habitat in statements telling which places various species inhabit. Eventually modern European languages adopted habitat as a noun designating a biologically inhabited place. From the same Latin root we have hábito/habit, which is a routine that has metaphorically inhabited a person.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


Last time, with heavy doses of nosism, I wrote about nos, which in Latin meant ‘we’ and ‘us,’ and in Spanish means ‘us’ and ‘to us.’ The corresponding Latin adjective was noster ‘our,’ with stem nostr-, which developed into Spanish nuestro. Beginning in the Renaissance, pharmacists sometimes placed the neuter Latin nostrum ‘ours’ on bottles of medicine, as if to say “This is our home remedy.” That’s the origin of nostrum as an English term for ‘a medicine whose ingredients are kept secret,’ and then more generally for ‘any sort of product or scheme that is less than reputable.’ The French cognate of Spanish nuestro is notre, which lost its s by the same process that has led some modern varieties of Spanish to turn nuestro into nuehtro and then nuetro. We recognize French Notre Dame ‘Our Lady’ as the name of a famous Gothic cathedral in Paris and also of a Catholic university in Indiana.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the underlying Indo-European root was *nes-, whose suffixed adjectival form *ns-ero‑ gave rise not only to Latin noster but also to Germanic *unsara‑. With the loss of the -n-, that became Old English ūser. The subsequent loss of the s led to Old English ūre, the ancestor of our our (for those of us who are native English speakers).

©2017 Steven Schwartzman


We begin today’s post with a discussion of the rare English word nosism, which, but for an old prejudice against English and in favor of Latin and Greek, we might otherwise be calling weism. We who have studied Spanish or grew up speaking the language recognize the nos in nosism as the form of the Spanish first person plural pronoun that acts as a direct and indirect object, but in Latin nos functioned as the direct object or the subject of a verb. A Roman emperor or dictator, who we can agree had an overwhelming need for self-aggrandizement, might speak to his subjects with nos, thereby puffing himself up into a plural long before cloning became a biological possibility. Nosism is a name for that imperial or royal we, and more generally for an excessive use of we.

Astute readers will have noticed that we began today’s entry with the word we and repeated it as the subject of several more clauses in the first paragraph. We sometimes call that sort of usage the literary or author’s we, with which we aim to create a bond with our readers. We also note that Latin nos was a short word, one that modern Spanish has felt the need to build up into nosotros, which we can see really means ‘we others’ or ‘the rest of us.’ What we find harder to see until someone points it out to us is that English us, whose Germanic ancestor *uns still had an n in the middle of it, is a cognate of Latin and Spanish nos.

For more on nosism, I (yes, I) call your attention to Ben Zimmer’s “On Words” column in the October 3, 2010, New York Times, which prompted today’s blog entry.

©2016 Steven Schwartzman


How appropriate, with the northern hemisphere about to enter winter, that I recently learned the Spanish verb arrecirse, which means ‘to become numb, swollen, or stiff with cold.’ While a first glance probably doesn’t suggest any connection to English, the DRAE traces arrecir to Latin *arrigescere, an inchoative version of the Classical Latin verb arrigere ‘to set up, raise, erect.’ The underlying Indo-European root is the *reg- ‘to move in a straight line’ that underlies so many words in Spanish and English, e.g. corregir/correct, dirigir/direct, regente/regent, and native English right.

Etymology aside, arrecir is one of 16 Spanish verbs (plus compounds) whose present tenses share the peculiarity that they have forms only for the first and second person plural. In this case, that means nosotros nos arrecimos and vosotros os arrecís. Strange, huh? We get numb with cold but I by myself don’t. Of course, where there’s a chill there’s a way, and when the action is happening now rather than being put forth as habitual, we can use a circumlocution like me estoy arreciendo. If you’d like, you can click to see the 15 other verbs that follow this curious pattern.


Native speakers of standard Spanish, like those of standard English, are unlikely to recognize traila. The word is an example of Spanglish, or some would say Tex-Mex. By whatever designation, traila is a Spanish version of the English word trailer. While traila can refer to the type of trailer that people live in, which is to say a mobile home, when I saw the word in Austin the other day it appeared on the side of a vehicle from which people buy breakfast or lunch, i.e. a food trailer.

English trailer obviously comes from trail: a trailer is a vehicle that trails behind the one that is pulling it. The etymology of trail itself isn’t fully established. The American Heritage Dictionary says that Middle English probably took the verb trailen, source of the modern trail, from Old French trailler, which meant ‘to hunt without a foreknown course.’ That would have developed from Vulgar Latin *trāgulāre, a hunting term meaning ‘to make a deer double back and forth.’ The AHD speculates that *trāgulāre might have arisen as an alteration of Latin trahere ‘to pull, draw,’ under the influence of Latin trāgula ‘dragnet.’ In trahere, of course, we recognize the ancestor of the synonymous Spanish traer, which according to linguasorb is the 73rd most common verb in Spanish (follow the link if you’d like to see a list of the top 100).

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Make good grades and you’ll graduate with a degree

The Spanish noun grado has various meanings, including those that can be translated into English with the related words grade and the French-derived degree. All go back to Latin gradus, a noun that meant ‘step, pace, gait, walk,’ from the verb gradī ‘to step, walk, go, advance.’ Other words we’ve borrowed from that source are the ingrediente/ingredient that ‘goes into’ a recipe; the retrógrado/retrograde that applies to something ‘moving backward’; the graduar/graduate which one does upon taking all the steps required to complete a course of study, typically in a process described as gradual.

One other related word is the temperature scale named centígrado/centigrade for the separation of a hundred grados/degrees between the freezing and boiling points of water. Also known as the Celsius scale, it stands in contrast to the Fahrenheit scale still predominantly used in the retrograde United States. And with respect to that, let me point out a curiosity that I discovered a couple of years ago, namely that in two instances a temperature in one system can be converted to its counterpart in the other (rounded to the nearest whole degree) merely by switching the digits:

16°C = 61°F and 28°C = 82°F.

Armed with that precious knowledge, you can now graduate to being the life of the party.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


In Spanish a mitón is ‘a type of glove that leaves the extremities of the fingers exposed.’ Gloves of that sort are helpful for people who want some protection from the elements but who need to maintain the dexterity that fingertips provide. (One sort of wearer that comes to mind is a nature photographer in winter.)

The fact that a mitón is a kind of glove makes an English speaker think of the word mitten, even if a mitten fully covers a hand. Might there nevertheless be a connection between the two words? It turns out that Spanish took its word straight from French miton (French stresses an isolated word on its last syllable, by the way), so we have turn Gallic for a bit. French miton was based on the Old French mite that meant ‘glove’ and that generated, with a different suffix, the mitaine that means the same as Spanish mitón. English borrowed mitaine as mitten, whose sense shifted to that of a glove that still dealt with different parts of the hand in distinct ways, but now with the distinction being between the thumb and the other four fingers collectively.

Many etymologists assume that the French mite which by itself and through its derivatives referred to gloves is the same mite that French-speaking children use as an alternate name for a cat, the idea being that a glove or mitten is as soft as a cat’s fur.

English mitt, by the way, arose as a shortened form of mitten.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


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

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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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