Parallel Etymologies— English and Spanish
What do “soap” and “jabón” have in common? Why are “army” and “armada” so different in meaning?
Etymology: The derivation and history of a word.
Genealogy: The study of family history.
Genealogy is to people, what etymology is to words.
The history, origin and the evolution of the meaning of words awakens everybody’s interest and keeps surprising all of us. The parallel development of words in English and Spanish from common roots, from Latin mostly—a fascinating study—has given rise to problems for learners of both languages. False friends, from the French faux amis, is the term given to words that stem from the same word root, appear to be the same, but have had diverse traveling roads and have reached different meanings, giving lie to the old saying that all roads lead to Rome. Not all Latin words have developed in the same way in English and Spanish, having at times meanings so different that confound and baffle us.
The Latin word arma, tools from armata, fem of armatus, armed, equipped with tools, gave us the word army, now the military land forces of a nation. The meaning of land armed force became prevalent starting in 1786, and until then it was simply an armed expedition.
The Spanish word armada, also from armata, femenine of armatus, (Conjunto de fuerzas navales de un Estado) gave the modern meaning of “navy” and not “army” which is ejército. Armada is also a fleet, conjunto de buques de guerra, which became an English word since Philip II of Spain sent his fleet, the Spanish Armada, to invade England in 1588.
Nice means pleasing, agreeable, delightful and much more. It has so many meanings that the word can be applied to almost everything we consider “nice”. It comes from the Latin nescius, silly, foolish, ignorant. Its meaning has been changing from timid to fussy, and from fussy and fastidious to delicate, and then agreeable and kind. People use words, and give them new meanings, out of ignorance, or perhaps in an attempt to be playful and fashionable, and “different”.
The Spanish necio did not evolve or change, and has retained the original meaning of ignorant, silly, foolish. (DRAE: “Necio. Ignorante y que no sabe lo que podía y debía saber.”) Both necio and nice come from the same root but now have different meanings.
Soap comes from the Latin sapo-saponis, which in turn derived from several Germanic words, mainly from saiport, seife, soap in German. Sopa, and sapone are the direct origins of the English word soap.
The word jabón in Spanish has the same etymology, the same origins, and yet it sounds completely different. Both words have had different phonetic and spelling evolutions. In both languages soap and jabón are associated with flattery also.
The word cavil, from Latin cavillari, to satirize or make fun of, entered the English language late, as an inkhorn term, in the 1540s. The meaning now is that of raising irritating objections and fault finding. And from cavillare we get the Spanish cavilar, to ponder, think in depth. The Latin meaning of making jests, joke, turned to “pensar con profundidad algo.” These are the mysteries of the evolution of the meanings of words.
The English word carpet, a heavy fabric for covering the floor, from the Latin carpere and then from the French carpite, has its equivalent in Spanish in carpeta, folder, cover, which derives from the French carpite, carpette, like English, but with another meaning. Carpet for covering floors, and gathering dust and mites, is alfombra, which is of Spanish Arabic origin, and has nothing to do with its English cousin.
Most etymologies are fanciful and buried in piles of quotations, and many are the ravings of aficionados, amateurs. The more serious etymologists have an ace up their sleeve: “word of unknown origin,” they write, thus justifying themselves. Of course, they never own their ignorance and say: “I don’t know the etymology of this word.”
My dictum for today: If you do not know, say so.