Spanish words of mystery

Spanish is surely one of the best-understood languages in the world from a linguistic perspective. Linguists have access to written Spanish texts beginning with the early 13th century Poema del mío Cid. Moreover, Spanish descends from another known language, Latin. Most of the other languages that have influenced Spanish, such as Arabic, French, and English, are themselves well understood as well.

Therefore it is surprising, and somehow refreshing, that the origins of some Spanish words remain obscure. Here are some examples, in alphabetical order. The etymological information is from Joan Corominas’s priceless Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, which is never far from my desk.

This list is by no means exhaustive; I’ve picked words that are relatively common. My favorites are baratobrisa, burlasien, and tomar simply because they are so very common.

Word Notes
añicos ‘pieces‘ Corominas suggests a possible pre-Roman origin.
ascua ‘embers‘ I had to include this word because of my earlier post on the saying Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina.
bache ‘pothole‘ Of possible Basque origin. Reinforcing Corominas’s doubts is R.L. Trask’s authoritative The History of Basque, which disputes Basque origins for all Spanish words except for izquierda.
barajar ‘shuffle (cards)‘ The word’s original meaning was ‘fight’; in this sense it is shared by other Romance languages, e.g. Catalan barallar.
barato ‘cheap‘ Perhaps pre-Roman, cognate with proto-Celtic *mratos ‘trick’.
batea ‘tray, trough‘ Possibly from Arabic bâtiya.
brisa ‘breeze‘ Shared by all Western Romance languages.
burla ‘taunt, joke, trick‘ Shared by Catalan and Portuguese.
cuchitril ‘hovel, shack, hole-in-the-wall‘ Possibly from Vulgar Latin *cohortile ‘corral’, with influence from cochinera ‘swill’.
curtir ‘‘to harden, tan (skin)’‘ Shared by Portuguese. Corominas suggests a possible origin in corto ‘short’, since hides and fruits shrink as they are tanned’, or the Vulgar Latin *corretrire, meaning ‘wear away by rubbing’.
cuy ‘guinea pig‘ A character in Michael Moore’s “shockumentary” Roger & Me notoriously asked “Pets or meat?” when selling rabbits. The cuy is both: a pet in the United States, and a tasty meal in South America. In either case, its etymology is unknown. Corominas suggests two possibilities: either onomatopoeia from the animal’s squeal, or, less likely, the Basque word kui ‘rabbit’. The Real Academia Española disagrees, stating that the word is of Quechua origin.
gacha, gachas ‘‘mush, porridge, oatmeal’‘ Corominas suggests that this word, while of “origen incierto”, may come from the word cacho ‘bit, piece’, since mush can be made from bread crumbs.
gamberro ‘joker, vandal, rake‘ Perhaps from Valenciano gran verro ‘big pig’.
gancho ‘hook‘ Probably pre-Roman. This word has spread to Arabic, Turkish, and various Balkan languages as well as Catalan and Italian.
garbanzo ‘chickpea‘ Probably pre-Roman and Indo-European.
mendrugo ‘crust‘ Its secondary meaning of ‘idiot’ suggests a possible relationship with mandría ‘worthless individual’, of Italian origin.
sien ‘temple (side of forehead)‘ Perhaps of Germanic origin.
tomar ‘to take‘ It blows me away that this super-common verb, shared by Portuguese, is of “origen incierto”. Who knew?

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Spanish words of mystery

  1. Ioannis Paraskevopoulos

    A pdf version of the Corominas dictionary is available for free on scribd.com:
    https://goo.gl/yrFQVS
    A propósito, “¿Por qué?” me encantó, ¡muchísimas gracias profesora Hochberg!
    Un saludo desde Grecia 🙂

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      ευχαριστώ for the links and Παρακαλώ en cuanto a mi libro.
      I hope those came through OK!

      Also, I already did a blog post on one of those dictionaries, here.

      Reply
  2. Jon Aske

    This has given me an idea for my book. I need to add a short section in chapter 4 or 9 making the point that for some words, we don’t know where they came from, just to reinforce the point.

    Yes, Corominas is the go-to place for these things, though I can’t wait till the day when something less preliminary comes out. I don’t think I’ll see it.

    By the way, the full Corominas, not just the brief one, can also be found on PDF.

    Reply

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