Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Leer and Religion

It seems like a paradox: leer (Spanish for, “to read”) is a cousin of religion! But they are actually closely related – despite the too-common belief that religion is thoughtless!

Religion comes from the Latin, re- (“again”) combined with legere (“to read.”) Thus, religion is literally, reading the same thing again and again: a form of reading ritual.

From the Latin legere, the ‑g- disappears over time and we get the Spanish… leer, “to read.”

Thus the r‑l-g of religion maps to the l- of leer.

It’s funny that, today, religion and reading are too often seem as opposites. For most of history, the educated classes were the priests and scholars; this is why the old American universities, for example, were predominantly founded by religious groups!

Jaula and Jail

Jaula, Spanish for “cage”, doesn’t feel or sound like a cage. Not related etymologically at all.

But it is related to the English word for a particular type of cage: jail.

Although not obvious, since the “j” is pronounced with the throat-clearing Arabic sound, both come from the French jaole (formerly geole).

You can see this in the j‑l root in both.

Apostar — Position, Posit

Apostar, Spanish for “to bet”, sounds nothing like bet or any related English word.

But it turns out to be a close cousin of Posit and Position: Betting is indeed just an extreme form of putting forth a position or positing something — literally putting your money where your mouth is.

All come from the same Latin, positionem, which come from the Latin root verb ponere (“to put”)  from which we also get the Spanish for the same, poner.

Llenar and Expletive

Llenar comes from the Latin plere (“to fill”), as we’ve previously discussed. But here’s another English word that comes from the same Latin root: expletive, yes, that euphemism for vulgar words!

Expletive literally means to “fill” with the expansive ex- prefix which, taken together, mean, “to fill out your words.” An expletive is literally filling conversation with words when you don’t know what else to say!

Flojo and Flush, Fluent

The Spanish flojo means “slack, loose” — but it is a very common word in Spanish, often used to mean “relaxed” in a negative way, in senses like, “They cut themselves some slack.”

Flojo comes from the Latin fluxus, meaning the same as the Spanish. From fluxus, we get a bunch of English words, including: fluent, fluid, fluctuate and even (via fluent) affluent and influence. We also get the more fun flush and the most obvious flux (as in, “to be in flux.”) All of these can be understood in the sense that, that which is loose flows — and all of these words flow in one way or another: liquids are fluid, you speak fluently, flushing water flows, money flows if you are affluent, etc.

The ‑x- in the original Latin tended to disappear into the English (hence leaving the vowels before and after, as in fluent or fluid) or became a ‑sh- sound. This is an example of the common pattern of the ‑sh- sounds mapping to the throat-clearing ‑j- in Spanish, with the fl-sh of flush mapping to the fl‑j of flojo.

Mirar and Admire, Mirror, Miracle

The Spanish mirar, “to look at” has two curious cousins in English: admire, mirror and miracle.

All come from the same Latin root, mirari, which meant “to wonder at”. We can see how they are all related to this same sentiment of awe and wonder:

  • Mirar is now just to look at someone but originally meant, to look at with wonder. Looking at someone is a form of wondering about about them.
  • Admire is really a form of wonderment as well. The ad- prefix means “at”, so admiration is always wonder that is directed at someone.
  • Mirror too comes from the same root and looking in the mirror is thus the most conceited act of being in awe of yourself!
  • Miracle, as well as its Spanish version milagro, also comes from the same root: a Miracle is really just something that causes intense wonder!

The m‑r root is present in all versions, in English and Spanish, so the pattern is easy to spot.

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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