Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

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!

Dorado and Aurora

Dorado, Spanish for “covered in gold” — think of McDonalds in Spanish. Los Arcos Dorados (the golden arches–literally!) comes from the Latin de– (“of”) and aurum, “gold”: gilded or gold-covered, literally means… from gold.

From the same Latin root we also get the English aurora, “dawn” or the Roman goddess of the dawn. The morning sun glittering in the distance is… shining, just like gold does.

We can see the a-r root in both words clearly!

Rabia, Rage, and Rabies

The Spanish for “anger,” rabia, is curiously related to the disease of insane dogs: rabies.

Both come from the Latin rabere, meaning “to be crazy.” So, rabies is literally when a dog is acting crazy — and, at least in Spanish, when you get angry, it is a form of insanity!

Also from the Latin rabere comes related English words such as: rage, enrage, and rabid.

Vencer and Vanquish

Vencer — “to defeat” in Spanish — comes from the Latin vincere, of course from the classic triple-V line of Caesar’s. But from this root, we get a bunch of interesting words, including:

  • Vincent — yes, the name is literally, The Conquerer!
  • Victory — the victor does win over the enemy!
  • Convince — With the con- prefix… the victor of an argument just convinces the other!
  • Vanquish — The victor vanquishes the opponent!
  • Invincible — the victor is someone who is not (in!) vincible!
  • Evict — when you’re evicted from your apartment, that is a form of defeat

We can see the v-n-c root in most of these, or slight variations, like v-n-q.

Rubio and Ruby

The Spanish rubio (meaning “blonde,” as in the hair color) comes from the Latin rubeus, meaning “red”.

How did “red” come to mean “blonde”? In a world where everyone has very dark black hair… it’s easy to see how everyone could conflate blonde hair and red hair. The Romans didn’t know the Irish!

From the same Latin root, we get various English words including Ruby, the stone, and guess what color it is? We also get Rubric, which was originally religious directions that were written in… guess what color ink?

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!

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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