Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Lanzar and Launch, Lance

Lanzar (Spanish for “to throw, launch”) comes from the Latin lanceare “to pierce with a lance.”

From this root, we can see connections to various English words, including: launch (which is a form of throwing!), lance (it is the stick that the wield to pierce!), and even élan (think of ex-lanceare: to take the energy out of the throw!).

We can see the clear l‑n-z to l‑n-c (or l‑n-ch, in the case of launch) mapping. The ‑z- and ‑c- sounds are similar and thus often swap.

Siesta and Six

The word Siesta — the famous long breaks! — comes from the Latin sexta hora (“sixth hour”), because it was the 6th hour after the 6am wake-up time when everyone would stop, take a break, and pray. We can see the s‑s/x root in both — both coming from the same Proto-Indo-European word for “six.”

Interestingly, however, another English word comes from the same fountain: noon, which was originally nona hora, the 9th hour after the 6am wake-up time — time for another prayer! But — you must be wondering — noon is only 6 hours after 6am, not 9am hours! Excellent point, and the explanation is: the ninth hour prayers were originally at 3pm (9 hours after 6am), but over time, people started taking their breaks earlier and earlier and earlier.… surprise, surprise.

Hambre — Famine

Famine hunger spanish english

The Spanish hambre, for “hunger”, makes sense if you know two different patterns.

Firstly, the initial f‑to‑h pattern: words that began with an f- then a vowel in Latin tended to have the f- turned into an h- when Spanish evolved into Latin. Huir and Fugitive is another example of that pattern.

Secondly, the mn-to-mbr pattern: when the letters in Latin “m” and “n” appear together, often separated by a vowel, they usually became “mbr” as a unit in Spanish.

Thus the f‑m-n of famine maps directly to the h‑m-b‑r of hambre.

Levantar and Relevant

Relevant is a surprising cousin of the Spanish for Levantar (“to raise”). Both come from the Latin Levantare, also meaning “to raise”.

But what is the connection between raising and being relevant? Relevant was originally a legal term, in Scotland, meaning “to take over a property”: thus, raising up became taking control of which then became just making relevant.

Débil and Debilitating

Débil, Spanish for “weak,” comes from the same root as the English word debilitating: the Latin debilitas, meaning the same. This is another “obvious once you know” etymology.

Curiously, debilitas itself comes from the prefix de- (“away from”) and the Proto-Indo-European root *bel‑, meaning “strong.” From the same root we get, via other routes, the strong men of the Bolsheviks. Yes, it’s the same b‑l root there too!

Quejar and Quash, Squash

Quejar, Spanish for “to complain” doesn’t seem related to any English equivalent.

But upon closer look, it is a first cousin of both quash and squash.

How so?

All come from the Latin quassare, meaning, “to shatter.”

The relationship is easy to see if we remember that the Spanish ‑j- sound used to be the Latin ‑s- sound (and many variants, like ‑ss‑, ‑si‑, ‑sy‑, ‑sh‑, ‑ch‑, etc).

Thus, the qu‑j for quejar maps to the qu-sh of quash and the sq-sh of squash.

Complaining, it seems, is a form of quashing (squashing?) your opponent!

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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