Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Iglesia and Ecclesiastical

Both Iglesia (Spanish for “church”) and Ecclesiastical (also similar English words: think of the book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes) come from the same root: the Latin Ecclesĭa for “church”, which comes from the Greek ekkalein (“to call out”). After all, a preacher does call out to God. That is his vocation, what he professes!

This pattern is not obvious because both the Spanish i-g-l-s maps to the English e-c-l-s. The I/E vowel shift isn’t particularly common while the g/c vowel shift is more common, but sometimes harder to recognize.

Red and Retina

Red (Spanish for “network; net”) comes from the Latin rete, meaning “net.”

From the same root, we get the English… retina. How? What does your eye have to do with a net?

Well, if you look deeply into someone’s eye, their retina turns out to be a very tight network of blood vessels. And thus, your retina really is a… red (Spanish sense)!

You can see that the r-d of red maps to the r-t of retina.

Seguir and Sequester

Seguir (which we’ve discussed before here!) is also related to another interesting word: sequester.

To sequester comes from the Latin sequestrare, which means, “to put in safekeeping”. This, in turn, is from the earlier Latin sequester “trustee, mediator”. The Latin Sequester is from the Latin segui, meaning, “to follow”, from which we also get the Spanish for the same, seguir.

In other words, Sequester went from meaning “to follow” to “being a trusted party” to “the trusted party holding something apart from everything else” to “holding something apart from everything else”. This is interesting because of the surprising implication of trust in the earlier connotations–but not the earliest connotations. Today, when you sequester someone or something, there is often a distinct lack of trust involved!

You can see the connection with seguir because the s-g of seguir maps to the s-qu of sequester easily!

Catarata and “Cats and Dogs”

It is unknown where the English phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” comes from. But there’s one likely etymology that it is a corruption of the Latin catadupa for “waterfall”. From that same Latin root catadupa, we get the Spanish for waterfall…. catarata.

The c-t root that begins both catarata and “cats and dogs” does make this etymology plausible. But is it real? I just don’t know.

It does, however, make it easy to remember: a waterfall has the intensity of rain showers even stronger than with “cats and dogs”!

Jugar and Joke

Jugar (Spanish for “to play,” in the sense of a sport, not an instrument) and the English joke both, surprisingly, come from the same root: the Latin iocus, meaning, “joke, sport, pastime.”

Interesting: although the j-g of jugar maps to the j-k of joke, their meanings are sufficiently different so that, to an English speaker, the connection isn’t obvious.

Upon reflection, however, the key that binds them together is the other definition of iocus, “pastime”: both telling jokes and playing sports really are, indeed, pastimes.

Gama and Gamut

Gama (Spanish for “range”) comes from the Greek gamma, the third letter of the alphabet: alpha beta gamma. But it came to mean “range” in an interesting way: music. The traditional musical note gamma — which today is just ‘g’ — was used, in classic musical notation, and still today — to refer to the note that is both just below the primary starting letter ‘a’ (hence, on a piano, the ‘g’ key is immediately to the left of the ‘a’ key), as well as the highest note that ends the octave on the other side. Thus, the gamma refers to the whole range of notes!

From the same root, and with the same musical history, we also get the English SAT-synonym for “range”… gamut.

The g-m root is clearly visible in both.

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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