Want more Spanish etymologies? Let us know!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


Volver and Vulva

It might seem obvious in retrospect but it wasn’t at the time. Vulva (yes, that word!) and the Spanish for “to return”, volver, all come from the same root: the Latin volvere also meaning “to return.” Yes, the words are almost identical and the v‑l-v in both maps exactly to the other. It should have been glaringly obvious, I just never realized it! The vulva, after all, does roll back and forth! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the comment!).

Lots of other super-interesting words come from the same root: valve, etc. Over the next weeks we’ll post them too! Volver is a particularly rich root; people have been going back and forth since time immemorial!

Enseñar and Sign

The Spanish for “to teach,” enseñar comes from the Latin insignare (“to mark”). From the same Latin root, we get the English to sign — signing, after all, is making your mark upon a paper!

But how did signing turn into teaching, in Spanish? Well, think about the English expression… to make a mark on someone. A great teacher truly leaves a lasting mark on you — literally.

The s‑ñ of enseñar maps to the s‑gn of “sign,” with the ñ turning into a gn in English, as it commonly does.

Prestar and Presto

Prestar (Spanish for “to lend”) has its English equivalent in… presto!

It does make sense: Presto! Money just appears out of nowhere!

There is a deeper connection. Both come from the Latin praesto, meaning, “ready”, which also came to mean, “provide”. Provide, over the years, turned into “lend” as Latin evolved into Spanish: the lender is the provider, after all. Thus, “ready” turned into “provide” which turned into “lend”!

From the same Latin root, we also get the English press–but not in the common sense of pressing a button. But in the almost forgotten, more esoteric sense of forcing into military service. I remember learning in an 18th century British history class that the British crown used the impress men into military service – no, they weren’t trying to impress them (make yourself sound great) but instead to impress them (draft them!). This press and impress, in these particular senses, also come from praesto.

Comprar and Compare

Both the common Spanish comprar (“to buy”) and the similar-sounding-but-different-meaning compare in English come from the same Latin root: comparare, meaning “to make equal with; bring together for a contest.”

How could one word evolve into two very separate meanings? Well, the original Latin comparare comes from the root com (“with”) + parare (“prepare”); what do you do with a pair of things other than prepare to make a choice between them by comparing them to find similarities and differences — these either turn into a conflict between them, or become the same… or both?

So, the English compare preserves the original sense, although with less rivalry within the pair. But the Spanish basically tells us that shopping is just an exercise in comparative shopping — comparative, literally! Just comparing existing products and choosing the best.

And it’s noteworthy that the Spanish comprar implies much more preparation than the English does. Those Spanish are careful shoppers!

So he who buys without comparing it to the other alternatives really isn’t buying (or at least, comprar-ing), in the original sense.

Sombrero, Sombra and Umbrella, Umbrage

The Spanish Sombrero comes from the Latin prefix sub- (“under”) with the Latin umbra (“shade, shadow.”) We also get the Spanish sombra (“shade”) from that same root, as well.

From that same root umbra, we get the English… umbrella. The umbrella does protect you from the sun, actually — think of 19th century aristocratic women walking around with their sunlight umbrellas!

We also get, from the same root, the English to take umbrage — to get angry. Why? The bad things that happened that got you angry usually happened… in the shadows.

The u‑mbr root is clearly visible in all the variations.

Atropellar and Troop

Atropellar (“to knock over, to knock down” in Spanish) comes to Spanish borrowed from the French, troupe, as in, a troop of soldiers or more common these days, a comedy troop. 

Although we can see the tr‑p root in the English, French, and Spanish words, the question remains: how did a group turn into a knocking-over? The answer is that, large groups of rowdy drunk men almost always result in… knocking lots of people over! This is not a new concept – the word itself attests to the antiquity of drunken revelry!

Sala and Salon, Saloon

Sala, the common Spanish word meaning “room,” comes from the same root as two very similar English words: salon and saloon. All come from the old German sal meaning “hall” or “house” and thus it’s an interesting example of how words degrade overtime: something big and grand like a hall or a house is now just your little back room.

The s‑l root is clearly visible in all variations.

Estafa and Staff

Estafa, Spanish for “to rip off” in the sense of taking advantage of someone or stealing, comes from the Italian staffa, which means “stirrup”. This change of meaning came about because it was common, back in the day, for people to borrow a horse… and then never return it.

The Italian staffa itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European root stebh, which meant “to fasten, or place firmly” from which we get the English… staff. A staff, after all, is a stick that helps you fasten something into place! At least, it used to.

From the same PIE root, we get other English words including step, stump, stamp and… Stephen.

The st‑f root is visible in both estafa and staff.

Cumplir and Accomplish, Complete

Cumplir, the common Spanish meaning, “to finish [doing something]” is — in a moment of, “ah! It’s obvious now that you’ve told me!’ — a close cousin of the English, accomplish.

Both come from the Latin meaning “to complete,” accomplere, which comes from the older Latin root complere, meaning, “to fill up” — from which we also get the English complete.

Thus, the c‑m-pl of cumplir maps to the c‑m-pl of accomplish. Not to mention, the c‑m-pl of complete as well.

Chicle and Chiclets

Chicle (Spanish for “gum”) gives us the English chiclets, the gum brand. Through a funny story: when Mexican general Santa Anna lost Texas, he fled — dressed up in drag, actually (true story!) — to Staten Island. There, he stayed with an inventor Thomas Adams and told him about the Mexican love of chewing chicle… the rest is history.


© 2022 - All Rights Reserved | Contact | Privacy Policy, Terms & Conditions | Sitemap| Resources | Etymology Dictionaries To Help Us Learn Spanish

Hat Tip 🎩 to The Marketing Scientist