Author Archives: jhochberg

57 words with eñe

I’ve had the wonderful Spanish ñ on my mind lately (see e.g. here), and today decided to make a list of reasonably common Spanish words that use this characteristic letter. This started as a plain list of 57 words. Then I added translations. Then I couldn’t resist going back in time: I knew that the ñ sound had several different origins, but was curious to see how this worked out statistically.

The results are below, in tabular form so you can play with the words yourself if you like. The table is sorted by Type, meaning the type of the word’s origin; within each type, words are listed in alphabetical order. The types themselves are ordered by frequency.

  • The most common origin is therefore the first one you see in the table: a Latin ne or ni. When followed by another vowel, the e or i turned into a y sound, which in turn had a transformative effect on the n.  (The y sound had a similar effect on other consonants, not just n, and the resulting changes are referred to as palatalization.)
  • The next most common origin is a Latin double nn; this is the source of the tilde (~) itself.
    Pleasingly, the suffix -eño has a dual origin, with one derivational path of the ne/ni type (seen in words like isleño) and another of the nn type (seen in pequeño).
  • The third group is a Latin gn or ng sequence. I knew that some ñ‘s came from gn, but the ng words were a surprise.
  • Next are words borrowed from other languages. Here we find words that begin with an ñ, from languages as disparate as Quechua, Dutch, and Italian.
  • The mn group could really be collapsed under nn, because these words passed through an nn stage before emerging with an ñ.
  • Some words on the list were internally derived from other Spanish words. For example, caña ‘reed’ gave rise to both cañón and cañada.
  • Finally, one word (rebaño) is of unknown origin — too bad I missed it when writing this recent post — and one (cariño) has a known origin that doesn’t seem likely to produce an ñ.
Word Translation Origin Type
1.           araña spider Lat. aranea ne/ni
2.           baño bathroom Lat. balneum ne/ni
3.           campaña field, campaign Lat. campania ne/ni
4.           compañero companion Lat. compania ne/ni
5.           emponzoñar to poison Lat. potiniare ne/ni
6.           España/español Spain/Spanish Lat. Hispania ne/ni
7.           huraño shy Lat. foraneus ne/ni
8.           isleño islander -eño suffix from Lat. ‑ineus ne/ni
9.           jalapeño type of pepper Jalapa (Mex. prov.) plus -eño ne/ni
10.       migraña migraine Lat. hermicrania ne/ni
11.       montaña mountain Lat. montanea ne/ni
12.       ordeñar to milk Lat. ordiniare ne/ni
13.       piña pinecone, pineapple Lat. pinea ne/ni
14.       saña rage Lat. insania ne/ni
15.       señor, señora, señorita Mr., Mrs., Miss Lat. senior ne/ni
16.       viña vine Lat. vinea ne/ni
17.       añil indigo Ar. an-nil nn
18.       año year Lat. annus nn
19.       caña reed Lat. canna nn
20.       engañar to fool Lat. ingannare nn
21.       guiño wink Lat. cinnus nn
22.       muñeca wrist, doll Lat. bonnicca nn
23.       niño boy Lat. ninnus nn
24.       ñoño dull Lat. nonnu nn
25.       paño cloth Lat. pannus nn
26.       peña rock, crag Lat. pinna nn
27.       pequeño small -èño suffix from Lat. ‑innu nn
28.       enseñar to teach Lat. insignare gn/ng
29.       estaño tin Lat. stagnum gn/ng
30.       heñir to knead Lat. fingere gn/ng
31.       leña firewood Lat. ligna gn/ng
32.       puño fist Lat. pugnus gn/ng
33.       reñir scold Lat. ringi gn/ng
34.       señal signal Lat. signa gn/ng
35.       tamaño size Lat. tam magnus ‘so big!’ gn/ng
36.       teñir to dye Lat. tingere gn/ng
37.       uña nail Lat. ungula gn/ng
38.       bruñir polish Occ. brunir borr
39.       buñuelo fritter Cat. bony borr
40.       champaña champagne Fr. champagne borr
41.       chuño potato starch Quech. ch’uñu borr
42.       gañán farmhand Fr. gaaignant borr
43.       ñandú rhea Guar. ñandú borr
44.       ñoqui gnocchi Ital. gnocchi borr
45.       ñu gnu Dutch gnoe borr
46.       tacaño stingy Ital. taccagno borr
47.       vicuña Quech. uikuña borr
48.       daño harm Lat. damnum mn
49.       doña lady Lat. domina mn
50.       dueño master Lat. dominus mn
51.       otoño autumn Lat. autumnus mn
52.       sueño dream Lat. somnus mn
53.       apañar to fix from paño (below) der
54.       cañada ravine from caña der
55.       cañón cannon, canyon from caña der
56.       cariño affection Lat. carere
57.       rebaño flock unknown

Viggo Mortensen, “el argentino”

I have Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Capitán Alatriste books on my mind these days because El Ministerio del Tiempo, the Spanish TV show I’m currently enjoying on Netflix, has a running joke about a time-traveler from the 1500s (played by Nacho Fresneda) who resembles Pérez-Reverte’s swashbuckling hero.

The Alatriste doppelganger specifically reminded me of an amusing conversation I had a few years ago with Lorena, a friendly Mexican woman who used to have a coffee kiosk near my train station. I frequently picked up a cup of coffee there and, naturally, would also enjoy a chat in Spanish.

One morning I happened to have the first volume of the Alatriste series with me when I picked up my coffee. I showed it to Lorena and she instantly recognized the handsome man on the cover. “Es el argentino,” she said.

This tickled my funny bone since she was referring to Viggo Mortensen, who played Alatriste in a movie based on the series, and who is actually Danish-American. Mortensen lived in Argentina when he was a young boy, returning with his American mother to the United States at age 11. It’s impressive that he’s held onto his Spanish…and his Argentinian accent.

Coincidentally, my son Aaron just sent me this clip of Viggo Mortensen speaking six languages, including Spanish:

If you look on YouTube you will find similar videos of him speaking other numbers of languages. Wouldn’t it be great if all Americans were multilingual?

Even more coincidentally, I recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, starring Mortensen as Aragon. He was perfect for the role — and in a few scenes, speaks Elvish.

Tildes in logos

Lately I’ve been on a mini-quest for tildes in logos. By “tilde”, I mean the curvy mini-N that forms the top part of the distinctive Spanish letter ñ. (Just to be confusing, in Spanish itself, tilde also refers to diacritical marks in general, including those seen in words like café.)

Here are some of my findings, in no particular order:

A weekly Spanish publication distributed with the Friday edition of the newspaper “El Mundo”. Available online at


A Spanish blog having to do with the language of sports.

The international organization devoted to Spanish education and culture.

A subreddit for educational talk about Spanish-language matters.

This bizarre use of the tilde gets the message across for this Spanish hotel chain.

Even more bizarre is the s+tilde in this logo for Cantabria-based Link Seafood Sources.

I think “CNN en español” hit it out of the park with this one.

I see a tilde here in the curves on the left-hand side of the logo. Do you?



¡El Ministerio del Tiempo has arrived!

For months I’ve been hearing about El Ministerio del Tiempo, a popular science-fiction TV show from Spain. It has just come out on Netflix in the USA, and I’m in the middle of the first episode. It’s awesome!

Image result for ministerio del tiempo

The show is about a secret Spanish government agency that controls a set of portals to Spain’s past. As best as I understand it so far, their mission is to stop nefarious time travelers from changing history. In the first episode they recruit new agents from the 1500s, 1800s, and the present (shown left to right in the picture). The show features a star turn by Diego Velázquez and multiple shout-outs to Arturo Pérez-Reverte‘s Capitán Alatriste.

As a linguist I am of course enjoying the older Spanish spoken in the 1500s scenes. And so far the plot and characters seem to be lots of fun.

Try it yourself!

An Academia for Ladino!

Regular readers of this blog already know that I’m a big fan of the Spanish language academy system, consisting of the Real Academia Española (RAE) and its 22 sister institutions, and collectively known as the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (ASALE).

I now have a new reason to love the Academia: the institution now expects to add a new sister academy, based in Israel, that is devoted to Ladino. Also known as Judeo-Spanish, or judeoespañol, Ladino is the language of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and their descendants. Once spoken by hundreds of thousands of Jews around the Mediterranean, especially in Turkey, the language is now in danger of extinction. Unlike Yiddish, its German-based counterpart, which is still spoken as a first language by Hasidic communities in Israel and the United States, Ladino lacks fresh native speakers, and its older speakers are dying out.

A language academy for Ladino wouldn’t save the language, but it would help to conserve, study, and honor it.

According to an article in El Cultural, the RAE/ASALE has approved the formation of the Academy and has passed the bureaucratic baton to the State of Israel. Once Israel recognizes the Academy, it can then formally apply for membership in ASALE. It is hoped that this will take place by the next ASALE convention in 2019.

Very exciting!



I didn’t wake up this morning expecting to write a blog post about sangría. But while preparing a handout with instructions for student compositions, I realized that I didn’t know how to say indentation in Spanish. And when I looked it up in Word Reference (my favorite dictionary resource), to my surprise I learned that the correct Spanish word is sangría.

¿Sangría? As in sangría? This definitely called for some further investigation.

Image result for sangria

Again consulting Word Reference, it turns out that sangría has three basic uses. First, there is the refreshing summer drink made from wine, fruit, and other ingredients. Second, there are a few meanings clearly derived from the word sangre ‘blood’. These include ‘bloodletting’, ‘bleeding’, and ‘phlebotomy’; ‘the inside of the elbow’ (where blood is drawn) — this is an unnamed body part in English, what fun!; and, more figuratively, ‘drain’ or ‘loss-maker’. Third, there is the typographical meaning this post started with: ‘indentation’. Likewise, sangrar means both ‘to bleed’ and ‘to indent’.

Leaving aside the indentation meaning for a moment, the question naturally arises: does the beverage sangría get its name from its red color? While the English-oriented Etymology Online website claims that it does, the higher authority of Joan Corominas dismisses this possibility. He explains that sangría was not used with this meaning in Spanish until 1832, and that

It is unlikely that this is a figurative use of sangría ‘bleeding’, mostly because the English sangaree was already seen in 1736 (and Portuguese sangría, 1813); from English it soon passed to Minorcan in the form sèngri — which proves that the word was not used then in either Castilian or Catalan — and in American Spanish it is relatively unpopular. It probably comes from India, from a word derived from Sanskrit çarkarā ‘sugar’, which became sakkarā in Pali, çakkar in Hindi, and šakr in Urdu (perhaps a feminine sakkarī or *sankarī applied to sugared wine).

Corominas doesn’t address the typographical meaning of sangría, However, it occurred to me that bleed has a typographical meaning in English as well, where (to quote Wikipedia) “bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of where the sheet will be trimmed. In other words, the bleed is the area to be trimmed off.”

I can easily see the origin of the English meaning, since the ink bleeds, or extends, beyond the intended trimming boundary. The Spanish typographical sangría is more opaque to me, since an indentation is a reduction rather than an extension. Maybe it comes, instead, from the ‘inside of an elbow’ meaning, since an indentation is like the bend of an elbow?

Spanish language Nobel Prizes in literature

Every Spanish speaker can be rightly proud that “our” language is so international. It is an official language in twenty-one countries in North, Central, and South America, Europe, and Africa. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española provides oversight and stability while respecting dialectal differences.

Another measure of the success of Spanish as an international language is the fact that Spanish speakers from four continents — Europe and the three Americas — have won Nobel Prizes in Literature. The chart below summarizes this achievement. The commendations are from the “Official Website of the Nobel Prize”.

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?

A later post includes the mystery word rebaño ‘flock’.



¿Pollo or gallina?

Georgina Margan, a reader and professional translator from Tucson, Arizona, emailed me to give Trader Joe’s “a pat on the back for their Chicken Asada“, the subject of a “Bad Spanish” post on my blog. Whereas I complained that the product should be called Chicken Asado because pollo ‘chicken’ is masculine, she made the point that ‘chicken’ can also be feminine — and, in fact, that the feminine gender rules when chickens are plural:

The agreement between chicken and asada is correct because chicken means gallina (hen), not only pollo. You see, when chicks are born it’s next to impossible to tell females and males apart…unless you cut them open. Only when they grow up the difference between gallinas (feminine) and pollos (masculine) becomes evident. Pollos turn into gallos (roosters), if they are given the time. When both sexes are together in a flock, they are collectively referred to as las gallinas. This is one of the very, very few instances where a group of both sexes is referred to using the feminine noun. and the Real Academia certainly back up Gina’s point about the feminine collective plural gallinas. The former lists three earthy refranes (‘proverbs’):

  • acostarse con las gallinas ‘to go to bed early’ (lit. ‘to go to bed with the chickens’)
  • ¡hasta que meen las gallinas! ‘when pigs fly’ (lit. ‘when chickens piss’)
  • Las gallinas de arriba ensucian a las de abajo ‘the underdog always suffers’ (lit. ‘the chickens on top poop on the chickens below’)

The Real Academia repeats the first two refranes and also references cólera de las gallinas (‘fowl cholera’), a nasty disease which fortunately hasn’t crossed over to humans. Yet.

However, I still think it would be better for TJ to call this product Chicken Asado because the company clearly sees chickens as pollo, not gallina, as shown in the related product names Pollo Asado and Pizza al Pollo Asado.

One of these days I should actually sample one of these products!