Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Jefe – Chief

Chief jefe spanish english

Chief, and the Spanish for the same, Jefe, both come from the same root: the French chef, which means the same.

But this is odd as they sound so different! How are they related?

It’s not obvious, but it’s easy once you understand the pattern: The Latin sound “sh” and very similar sounds (such as the “ch” and “sy”) almost always became a “j” in Spanish. Like syrup and jarabe. Not obvious!

Crudo and Cruel, Crude Oil

Crudo is Spanish for “raw,” particularly in the everyday sense of “uncooked food”.

From the Latin crudus, meaning the same (raw, bloody), we get various English words including:

  • Cruel — makes sense if we think of it in the sense of “bloody”: a cruel person is someone who makes someone else bleed, at least emotionally.
  • Crude, as in Crude Oil — today crude is most commonly used in the phrase crude oil, but if we remember that crude oil is oil that is not yet processed, then the parallel to “raw” is obvious.

All still contain the cr- prefix, and crude still has the following -d- as well.

Interestingly, the Latin crudus itself comes from the Indo-European *kreue also meaning “raw”, from which — with the initial k- sound lost — we get the word raw itself. Thus, even raw itself is related to crudo.

Desayuno, Ayuno and Breakfast, Fast

This is one of my all-time favorite Spanish-English parallel etymologies.

The Spanish word desayuno, meaning breakfast, comes from the prefix des– meaning not– and ayuno, meaning fast (in the sense of a religious fast, during which you don’t eat). Thus, literally desayuno (breakfast) is “the break – fast”!

Alumbrar and Illuminate

The Spanish Alumbrar means “to light up” in English — and, indeed, it is literally the same as to illuminate.

The Latin m-n sound almost always became a m-b-r as Latin turned into Spanish. Compare hominem with hombre, for example.

We see the same pattern here. Both alumbrar and illuminate come from the Latin luminare, meaning the same, “to light up” — from which we also get the English luminary.

Thus, the l-m-n in the original corresponds to the ll-m-n in the English illuminate and the l-m-b-r in the Spanish alumbrar.

Ladrón – Burglar

The Spanish ladrón, for thief, sounds unrelated to any English word.

But, it does have an interesting connection to the English for the same, Burglar.

Burglar comes from the Latin burgus, which meant “castle” or a “fortified town” — think about the -burg ending in many place names, like Pittsburgh or Edinborough.

But, if burglar comes from burgus, then where did the -l- in the middle come from?

Well, the -l- was inserted slowly over time under the influence of the Latin for thief, latro. The word for “thief” was, unconsciously, made to sound similar to the other word for thief! And from latro we get, directly, the Spanish ladrón.

Thus, although burglar isn’t directly descended from ladrón, they are incestuous cousins.

Empresa, Prender and Impresario

Empresa (Spanish for “business”) is from the Latin imprendere, which itself comes from the Latin im– (“on”) plus prehendere (“to grasp”).

From the same Latin root, we get the English (via Italian), impresario.

An impresario, after all, is just a flashy businessman! True Italian style.

From the original Latin prehendere, we also get the Spanish prender, “to attach, fasten” — almost the same as grasping!

We can see the -m-p-r root in both words.

Garganta – Gargoyle, Gargle

The Spanish for “throat” garganta sounds completely unrelated to any similar word in English.

But it is actually a close cousin of both gargoyle and gargle.

All come from the Latin gula, meaning “throat”. You do gargle with your throat… and a gargoyle — although we associate it with the demon statues in churches — is, literally, a water spout. Yes, water used to spout out of the mouths of the gargoyles!

Miel and Mellifluous

The Spanish for “honey,” miel, comes from the Latin mel — also meaning honey. We can see the m-l root obviously and simply in both!

(The –fluous ending comes from the Latin fluere, meaning “to flow” — and we can also see the f-l root there!)

So, mellifluous words are… flowing like honey.

Cerca and Circle, Circus

The Spanish cerca (“near”, as in the common phrase, cerca de) comes from the Latin circus, meaning ring. From that same root, we get the English… circus (which does have a circular ring as its defining feature!) as well as circle (in the same shape!). The c-r-c root is clearly visible in all!

Falta and Fault

Falta (“lack of”) is an interesting word in Spanish because, it is one of those words, along with cornudo that is a grammatical construction that, literally, is less common in the English but rather, in English, the same point is made very commonly in a different way. Falta is very common in Spanish: La casa falta calefacción is literally “the house lacks heating” but the way an English speaker would make that point — since few today say “lacks” in everyday speech! — would be, The house doesn’t have heating.

Falta comes from the Latin Fallita, which means, “a fault.” Indeed, Fault itself comes from the same root — and we can see that with the f-l-t mapping in both. Fallita itself comes from the older Fallere (“to disappoint”) from which we get many English and Spanish words such as fail and fallar.

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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