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Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Salchicha and Chisel

Hot dog salchicha spanish

To chisel, and the Spanish salchicha (basically, hot dog) both come from the same root: the Latin secare, meaning “to cut, sever, decide”.

Other English words some from the same Latin root secare, such as dissect.

How did “to cut” turn into “hot dog”? Via the Italian Salsiccia — and if you think about it, the hot dog is indeed just a very finely chiseled piece of meat!

Jueves – Thursday

Thursday jueves spanish englishThursday and Jueves, like the other days of the week, come from the Germanic and Latin names for the same God: the King of the Gods, the God known as “Zeus” to the Greeks, and sometimes as “Jupiter.”

The King of the Gods was often called “Jove” (we still remember this in English: sometimes people euphemistically say, “By Jove!”) — hence, Jueves. And the Germanic equivalent of the same God is Thor — and Thursday is literally, “Thor’s Day”!

Humo and Fumes

If he is fuming, he is smoking — literally. And it is, subtly, the same word in Spanish.

“To fume” comes from the Latin root fumus (“smoke”) from which we also get the common Spanish word for “smoke”, humo. But they don’t sound alike, so how are they related?

The Spanish humo is a great example of the pattern of the Initial F turning into an H in Spanish, alone among the languages of the world. Many Latin words that began with an F that came to us in English through the Latinate F form, became the equivalent word but with an H- in Spanish. Take hermano and filial, for example. Or fact and hecho.

Other English words from the same root fumus include fumigation (ahhhh!) and the less common fetid. Fetid is a dirty, Shakespearean word, after all.

Buscar and Postulate

Buscar (Spanish for “to ask for”) comes from the Latin poscere (“to ask urgently”). In the transition from Latin to Spanish, the word was definitely weakened since buscar doesn’t have any urgent implication.

From this Latin root, we also get the English word… postulate. Postulating is really just formulating a thesis and wanting responses — which is just a sophisticated form of asking a question!

We can see the b-s-c of buscar maps to the p-s-t of postulate.

Cuero and Cork

The Spanish for “leather,” cuero, comes from the Latin corium meaning, “leather or hide.” From that root, we get a few English words, including… cork. A cork is made from the the hide of a tree, after all!

From the same root we also get cortex (the tree that runs up your spine!), scrotum (feels like a skin, doesn’t it?)

We can see the c-r root clearly in all these words!

Pensar, Pesadilla and Pensive, Compensate

The Latin pensare meant “to weigh”, in both senses: “to weigh something, such as gold, to get its value, usually to make a payment” or “to think about something deeply”.

From this word, we get a few Spanish words, including:

  • Pensar – to “think”, just a simplification and lightening of the original.
  • Pesadilla – with the diminutive -dilla ending added, it means “nightmare”. A dream is really just a small thought!

From the same Latin root, we get a few English words including:

  • Pensive – with the same original meaning as the Latin.
  • Compensate – which originally meant, “to counterbalance”, precisely what you do with a balance of justice!
  • Pansy – which is basically an insult for someone who spends too much time thinking!
  • Span – which originally meant to bind and came from the original sense of weighing.
  • Poise – originally meant, “to have a certain weight,” which then came to mean “to have a certain look”.

The p-n-s root (sometimes without the ‘n’) is visible in all words.

Jerez – Sherry

Sherry jerez spanish englishThe Latin sounds for “sh” — and similar variations, like “ch” and “ss” — became a “j” sound in Spanish.

Thus, the English sherry is nearly identical to the Spanish jerez!

These sh/j sounds were often spelled with a “x” in old Spanish; and sherry itself is named after the town it first came from, Xeres, which is near Cordova.

Buitre and Vulture

The Spanish buitre doesn’t obviously look like the English word it means: “vulture,” both of which are from the Latin vulturis.

But looking below the surface, we see the similarity: the b-t-r of buitre maps to the v-(l)-t-r of “vulture.”

This isn’t obvious at first for two reasons. First, the b- to v- transition: the sounds are identical in Spanish and often interchanged with each other, so it makes sense that they swap here.

But more subtly, the -l- between the vowels disappeared in the Spanish version, with the ulu becoming u-i. The vanishing of the -l- between the vowels is much more characteristic of Portuguese than Spanish (see almost every example in Portuguese, like comparing the Spanish vuelo with the Portuguese voo — an observation I first made in the Rio de Janeiro airport years ago!).

Coquetear and Cock

Coquetear, the Spanish verb meaning “to flirt,” comes from the French coq which means “cock” — in both senses — from which we also get the English word cock, albeit with a slightly different spelling.

It’s not that hard to figure out how a word that means “penis” came to mean “flirt” — but it is easy to smile every time you remember why.

From the same root, we also get the almost-forgotten English word for “flirting,” coquetry.

The c-q to c-ck mapping is clear between both words.

Semana and September

Semana (Spanish for “week”) comes from the Latin septimana for the same. Septimana itself comes from the Latin root septem meaning… seven. There are, after all, seven days in the week–by definition!

From the same root, we get the English September. But something isn’t right. Isn’t September the ninth month, not the seventh month? Huh?

The fascinating explanation is that the ancient calendar had ten months, the first of which is… March. So, the numbering is all two behind. This explains not only why September is two off, but so is October (from the root oct- meaning “eight”, not “ten”) as well as November (nov– for “nine”, not “eleven”) and December (dec– for “ten”, not “twelve.”)

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:
morgan@westegg.com

patterns to help us learn spanish:

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