Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Esmero and Mere

Esmero, a Spanish word meaning “done with care” comes from the Latin prefix ex– combined with the Latin merus which meant, “unmixed; pure” (such as, pure wine — not diluted by water). Anything done with care will be pure, right?

From that same Latin root merus, we also get the English… mere. The interesting part is that, over the centuries, mere has gone on to almost take on the opposite of its original meaning: the original, more Latinate sense, was similar to “pure” and its Spanish derivative, done with care. But over time, in English at least, its become degraded and degraded to the point in which today, it means to do “just barely enough.” This is an example of a broader pattern: words tend to degrade over time.

We see the m-r root clearly in both languages.

Pelo and Fight

Pelo (Spanish for “hair”) is a surprisingly militaristic word. Pelo comes from the Latin for the same, pilus–a hairy word, indeed.

But pelo, in the ancient language became a common word to mean a tiny amount, like we might say a “spec” in modern English. Apparently, the Romans lost their hair early!

So, as a euphemism for “a tiny amount”, it became the standard word in Latin for… a small group of soldiers: a pilum.

Then, over the centuries, the word for a group of soldiers came to mean the word for… fighting. Surprise, surprise. Therefore, that’s why the Spanish for “to fight” is… pelear.

Thus pelo (“hair”) and pelear (“to fight”) are almost the same word, in Spanish! Who would’ve thunk!

Demora and Moratorium, Demure

The Spanish demora means “delay” and comes from the Latin prefix de– with mora (“delay; hinderance.”)

From the same Latin root, we get two related English words: moratorium (a moratorium, after all, is just an indefinite delay!) and demure (someone who is demure or shy just delays in showing their responses!).

The m-r root is visible clearly in all of these words.

Disfrazar and Friction, Traffic

The Spanish disfrazar (“to dress up”, as in a costume) comes from the Latin fricare meaning “to rub; to rub off.”

From this same Latin root, we get the English friction — and what is friction if not, rubbing against something to wear it down?

We also get the English traffic (the tra– comes from a shortened version of the trans– “across” prefix). And what is traffic if not, friction across the road?

The fr-z of disfrazar maps to the fr-ct of friction and just the ff of traffic.

But the question is: how did the word for “rubbing” turn into the word for “dressing up in a costume”? That part is interesting: the Latin fricare (“to rub off”) turned into the Late Latin frictiare, meaning, “walking and leaving footprints (just like animals do).” Leaving tracks as you walk gave away who you are and where you’re going, letting you be followed. But with the de– prefix (meaning “not”) which negates that, disfrazar (literally, de– “not” and frictiare “leaving a trail behind you as you walk”) together meant not being able to be tracked or followed. Hence, a costume.

Cuatro and Quarantine

The English word quarantine is related to the Spanish word cuatro (“four”). How so? A quarantine was historically… forty days. Think about Jesus’ forty days in the desert, or the Jews’ 40 years wandering. Ahhhhh!

Hembra and Feminine

The Spanish hembra, for “female” (usually in regard to animals) sounds nothing like the English feminine. But it turns out that they are etymologically identical.

Both come from the Latin for female, feminina. Hembra sounds so different because the f-m-n root is changed to h-mbr via two different patterns:

  • The f-to-h pattern, where words beginning in the Latin f- change to an h- in Spanish, such as filial and hijo, or hacer and fact — changing the initial h- of feminina to h-.
  • The m-n to -mbr- pattern, where Latin words with the m-n together usually changed to an -mbr- in Spanish, like illuminate and alumbrar — changing the m-n of feminina to the -mbr- of hembra.

These two, taken together, show a clear mapping of f-m-n to h-mbr.

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:

patterns to help us learn spanish:

Buy the Book!

For Nerds Learning Spanish via Etymologies