Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Valija – Valise

In some of the Spanish words, they say maleta to mean “suitcase.” But in other parts, such as Argentina, they say valija.

Valija, although it sounds different from any English word, actually is quite similar to the almost-forgotten–my grandparents still use it!– English word, that also means “suitcase” , of valise.

Although they sound different, the connection becomes clear if we remember the pattern of the sh- to j- conversion: Latin words that had a sh- sound tended to turn into the j- sound in Spanish. Think of sherry/jerez.

In this case, the French valise entered English unchanged but when the French word entered into Spanish, it was Spanish-ified with the s- sound turning into a j- sound. Thus, the v-l-s maps to the v-l-j.

Docente and Educate

Docente, Spanish for “teacher,” comes from the Latin docere, meaning, “to teach”. From the same root, we get the English… education. The parallel becomes clear when we observe the d-c root in all of the variations.

The Latin root, Docere, however, is first cousins with ducere, meaning… “to lead.”

To teach is thus to lead — literally. Even more specifically, education is the ducere root, but beginning with the prefix ex-, meaning, “out of”: To teach is to lead out of (the darkness of ignorance)!

But it gets better: from the same root is to lead in a different direction… to seduce: sub- (Latin for, “away from”) plus ducere. To seduce is thus to lead away from where you should be!

Empujar and Push

The Spanish empujar (“to push”) has the same common ancestor as the English for the same, push: the Latin pulsare.

Pulsare meant, in Latin, “to beat”. A push is a sort of beat, in both senses: a punch and, a punch happening over and over again!

From the same root we also get the English, to pulse, of course. As does… impulse. Yes, an impulse is indeed a strong punch!

The sound here is a variation of the sh-to-j pattern, where variations of the s/x/sh/soft-g sound in Latin turned into the “j” in Spanish (via the Arabic influence) but remained the same as it transformed from Latin into educated English. Hence the “sh” sound in “push”!

Calor and Calm

The Spanish for “hot”, calor, sounds nothing like the English for the same.

But it does have a surprising relationship with the English calm.

Both come from the Latin cauma, which means “the heat of the sun in the middle of the day”. (What a specific concept! We need an English word for the same!). Cauma comes from the Latin calere, “to be hot.”

Thus, the word for heat has turned into, in English, the word for tranquility: calm! The heat, indeed, does calm us down!

We can see the pattern clearly if we map the root c-l of calor to the c-l of calm. The silent “l” in calm makes this less obvious than it should be!

Par and Peer, Pair, Disparage

The Spanish for “equal”, par, has a few useful parallels in English. All — in Spanish and English — come from the same Latin root par meaning “equal”.

  • Pair – A pair is really two equals together, literally.
  • Peer – Your peer is someone who is your equal, or at least at an equal level to you.
  • Disparage – is literally to note that someone is not your equal, with the dis- negative prefix before the p-r root.

In all of these, we can see the p-r mapping consistently and easily.

Cera and Sincere

The English sincere is from the Latin “sine cera” — literally, “without wax.”

From that same root is… the Spanish, cera, for “wax” (not to mention, the Spanish sin, also meaning, “without.”) The c-r root is easy to see in both words.

However, what does “wax” have to do with “sincerity”? Well, wax was used to make masks — and makes you hide your face, hide your emotions, hide your true self. Without wax, your face, your emotions, and your true self would be exposed to the world: you would become sincere.

Borracho and Inebriated

The fun, and everyday, Spanish word borracho is…. drunk. Although it sounds nothing like the English “drunk” it does have a subtle cousin in English: inebriated. Although they don’t look the same, we can see the parallel if we look with squinted eyes:

The b-r-ch root of borracho maps to the b-r in (in)-b-r-t. The English version sounds more Latinate because we added the in- prefix for emphasis at the beginning.

Facil – Difficult

The everyday Spanish word facil, meaning “easy” is the exact opposite — literally — of the English, difficult.

Both come from the latin facere, meaning, “to do” (hence the Spanish hacer and the English fact, as well).

So, facil — easy — is literally, doing! Doing is easy, we hope.

Difficult is really just de-facil : that is, not facil. Now that is easy, indeed!

The connection becomes clear when we remember the f-c-l root in both words!

Todo and Total

Todo (Spanish for “all; everything”) comes from the Latin for the same, totus. From that same Latin root, we also get the English… total. Anything that’s total is really all-encompassing, right? Hannah Arendt would certainly say that about a totalitarian government!

We can see the t-d to t-t mapping very clearly!

Alegre and Alacrity

Alegre, Spanish for happiness, has a close English cousin in alacrity (an SAT word meaning “eagerness” or “cheerful readiness”).

Both come from the Latin alacritas meaning the same as the English.

It’s funny, to me at least, how the word for eagerness turned into the word for happy in Spanish: there is a strong and ancient correlation between being willing to do things, and excited about them — and being happy.

what is the etymological way to learn spanish?

Nerds love to pattern-match, to find commonalities among everything. Our approach to learning languages revolves (the same -volve- that is in “volver”, to “return”) around connecting the Spanish words to the related English words via their common etymologies – to find the linguistic patterns, because these patterns become easy triggers to remember what words mean. Want to know more? Email us and ask:

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