Fun Spanish Etymologies

One of my favorite parts of studying other languages is finding connections in the meanings and etymologies of different words.  When asked what languages have influenced English, the top responses would likely be German, French, and Latin.  Most people wouldn’t think to include Spanish in this list.  While its linguistic influence is smaller than that of the other languages listed, Spanish is a crucial part of English vocabulary.

A common example of the influence of Spanish in American vocabulary is evident in the terms Americans use for items and activities associated with cowboys and the West.  For instance, corralrodeo, canyon (cañon), buckaroo (vaquero), bonanza, and lariat are all Spanish loan words or derivations.  Words like tobacco, cigar (cigaro), hurricane (huracán), barbecue (barbacoa), and potato (patata) all come from Spanish and are generally terms derived from Latin American indigenous languages.  Now, though, these are everyday words in English, used around the world.

Today, I wanted to share the etymology and linguistic connections of five Spanish words.  Several of the connections are ones I learned through my Spanish classes, but I’ve also researched the etymologies of a couple of the words on my own because I was curious about them.

parasol paintingParasol: This is the Spanish word for sunshade and is a combination of para from the verb parar, which means “to stop,” and sol, which is the word for sun.  Thus, this word literally means “stop-sun.”

Paraguas: This word means umbrella in Spanish and is a combination of par and aguas, literally meaning “stop-waters.”

Jubilarse: I have always been fond of the Spanish word for to retire.  Retirement from a job should be a joyful occasion, and this beautiful Spanish derivative of the Latin word for rejoice perfectly expresses this feeling.

Desayuno: Like in English, the Spanish word for the first meal of the day literally means to break one’s fast.  Des– means to stop doing something and ayuno is the Spanish word for fast, so this word literally means “not-fast.”

Mayonesa: The word we know as mayonnaise has unclear origins, according to articles on the Internet.  But one of my Spanish professors said that mayonnaise was invented on the island of Minorca when there was a shortage of butter and an excess of eggs and that the name comes from the city of Mahón.  Mayonnaise is just a French version of this Spanish word that was introduced into the English language.

Painting credits: The Herd Quitter by C.M. Russell and Morning Walk by John Singer Sargent






Words of the Day

In a break with tradition, we four authors have decided to work together on a special post containing some favorite, old, new, funny, long, or fun to say English words.  Read on to see what we found, and please share some of your own favorites in the comments below.


Given the plethora of words that are fun to say, I have just gone with my most recent discovery: sesquipedalian. Originally coined by the Roman writer Horace to warn young poets against using overly long words, it literally means “foot-and-a-half long.” The Webster definition of the modern word is: sesquipedalian “-1: having many syllables, long; 2: given to or characterized by the use of long words.”

While certainly not a commonly used term, sesquipedalian does roll off of the tongue in a pleasing way with some practice. A few other words that have piqued my interest lately are: prescient, nepenthe, asphodel, castellated, and surcease.


Maybe you, like me, find new colloquialisms entertaining (Gasp! Young people are ruining the English language!). College-aged kids introduced the following to me in recent months: slap and bet. Be careful: they don’t mean what they traditionally mean!

“See you at the party tomorrow night?”

Time passes…

Hey, how was that party the other night?”
“That party was slap!”

The meaning can be inferred based on context – bet meaning you bet, and slap meaning good or great.

Two other words pertain to a person’s sphere of knowledge and are both new to me (one I learned 2 years ago and the other, yesterday):

To go beyond one’s scope or province, esp to criticize beyond one’s sphere of knowledge

1. A person’s specific area of interest, skill, or authority. See Synonyms at field.
2. The office or district of a bailiff.

British Literature is Professor Barrik’s bailiwick, but she enjoys ultracrepidating on early American literature as well.

I can’t imagine using either word in a normal conversation where I wasn’t trying to be condescending, obtuse, or humorous. So the above sentence will have to do.


Tongue Twister: I have several favorite tongue-twisters, but one of the best is arachibutyrophobia.  Because we all need a word for that fear we have of peanut butter sticking to the roof of our mouth.

New to Me: I always called cars with a missing headlight “cyclops,” but this past weekend I learned paddidle, which has interesting origins as a driving game.

Perfect for the Purpose: Some words have an almost onomatopoeic quality where their sound and their definition match in a satisfying way.  Two examples are incorrigible and indeed (said with Jeeves’ level of emphasis and a hint of indulgence and incredulity, two other great words).



I like so many things surrounding this word. I love the alliteration in the Merriam-Webster definition: “Not readily investigated, interpreted, or understood” I like being this word. I like the challenge of scrutinizing (to use a sister expression) things that are this word. It’s got some fun synonyms, too: arcane, cryptic, enigmatic, impenetrable, uncanny.

I have loved this word ever since Calvin, of Calvin & Hobbes, used it in the following sentence: “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.” It’s a feeling I often have myself.

Calvin and Hobbes inscrutable

I’ve actually used that very word in that very sentence several times, usually when justifying some inane thing I just said or did. If I’ve quoted it to a fellow Calvin & Hobbes lover, it’s an opportunity for bonding and swapping other favorite strips. If I’ve said it to anyone else, they’re likely to be even more confused. Which makes me, myself, a bit inscrutable.


English vocabulary may be a maze, but let’s own it in its delightful craziness.  As Mark Twain reportedly said, “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”  So let’s have fun with English in all it’s changing intricacy, sesquipedalianism, and inscrutability.


Vocabulary in Old Books

While surfing the internet looking at t-shirts one day, I came across a shirt with an image of a raven spelling the word “nevermore.” Immediately recognizing the reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem The Raven, I went and grabbed my copy off of the shelf and began to read. However, upon opening the book, a small piece of paper fell out, and upon looking closer I realized it contained a bunch of words on it meant for further research in the dictionary.
One of the great advantages of reading older books is the expansive use of vocabulary found in them. While by no means a universal truth, many older authors (especially the ones who have lasted the test of time) maintained a much stronger mastery of the English language than people do today. This makes old books a great way to learn new (old) English words. However, like just about anything, vocabulary growth cannot be obtained in a desultory manner, because then we just end up writing words down to reference later and stick them in a book.
After rediscovering my list of vocabulary from Poe’s book, I continued on to reread The Raven, it took me all of 5 minutes, but in the process I had discovered several more words to add to my small paper. So, find a good book, and whenever you get a chance – read and learn. There’s a whole wealth of words out there that the majority of people do not know, a whole treasure chest just waiting to be discovered. Here are some of the words that I found through reading Poe:

  1. Quiescence –adj. in a state or period of inactivity or dormancy
  2. Asphodel –n. an immortal flower said to grow in the Elysian fields
  3. Desultory –adj. lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm
  4. Nepenthe –n. any drug or potion bringing welcome forgetfulness
  5. Castellated –adj. having battlements
  6. Surcease –n. cessation; relief or consolation

Etymology Enigmas Explained

Without words, humans could never tell or write stories.  But in a strange reversal of this relationship, some words would not exist without stories.  Instead of deriving their form and meaning from similar words in other languages, some terms are named after and earn their meaning from myths or history.  In fact, many unusual terms in English are named after people and places and the stories related to them.  After a little digging, I solved the etymology enigmas of the following ten words, and I have included their origin stories below.

Bluetooth: This strange technological term has always intrigued me, and I recently discovered that it is named after Harald Bluetooth, a Danish king in the 900s A.D. who united and Christianized Denmark (Baltzan 197).  The logo for the modern technology Bluetooth combines two runes which stand for the Danish king’s initials: Runic letter ior.svg and Runic letter berkanan.svg.

Pyrrhus bust

Cadmean/Pyrrhic: Adjectives used to describe a type of victory in which losses are so great that they offset the actual victory.  In Greek mythology, Cadmus was a Theban prince who sowed dragon’s teeth which grew into men who ended up slaying each other (“Cadmean”).  Pyrrhus was a Greek general who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 B.C., but with such heavy losses that he “declared…that another similar victory would ruin him” (“Pyrrhic Victory”).

Laconic: An adjective for terseness, this word is named after the inhabitants of Laconia who were famous for their verbal brevity.  We know them as the Spartans, but in the Greek, an inhabitant of this land was called Lakōn (“Laconic”).

Limerick: The poetry form limerick derives its name from a city in Ireland of the same name.  (Header image is of a castle in Limerick, Ireland).

OK: This word signals agreement or acknowledgement and first appeared in 1839 when it was “a humoristic fashion in Boston newspapers to reduce a phrase to initials and supply an explanation in parentheses” (“OK”).  In this particular case, OK was used as an abbreviation  that meant “all correct”—obviously as a joke because neither letter in the abbreviation was correct.  U.S. President Martin Van Buren popularized the term when he used it in his 1840 reelection campaign because his nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” named after his birthplace.

Robot: According to author Paige Baltzan, Karl Capek coined the term robot in a play in 1921, and robota is a Czech word that means “forced labor” (222).  Since then, robot has become a common word, especially popular during the heyday of science fiction.

Sandwich: A popular form of food, the sandwich’s name comes from the Earl of Sandwich, who is credited for making the first sandwiches.

Ambrose Burnside
General Burnside

Sideburns: The term sideburns is a variant of the word burnsides, both of which have the same meaning and originated from the last name of Ambrose Everett Burnside, a general in the American Civil War who had very impressive side-whiskers (“Burnsides”).

Tantalize: Did you know that this word was named after a king in a Greek myth?  Tantalus was a son of Zeus and the predecessor of Menelaus and Agamemnon.  After betraying the gods’ trust and committing some pretty abominable deeds, Tantalus was eternally punished in Hades for his crimes.  According to legend, Tantalus had to stand “up to his neck in water, which flowed from him when he tried to drink it, and over his head hung fruits that the wind wafted away whenever he tried to grasp them” (“Tantalus”).

Tarantism: This is a disorder characterized by an irresistible impulse to dance.  Apparently there was a tarantism epidemic during the 15th through 17th centuries, predominately in southern Italy.  Tarantism was popularly attributed to being bitten by a tarantula, and the tarantella was an energetic 6/8 meter dance thought to be a remedy for tarantism.  Turns out, the tarantula was innocent of all accusations, but now it has at least two terms named for it.  And in case you were wondering, all of these words derive their names from the Italian city Taranto.

Works Cited

Baltzan, Paige.  Information Systems.  4th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2018.

“Burnsides.”  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.

“Cadmean.”  Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913.

“Laconic.”  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.

“Limerick: Poetic Form.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online,

“OK.”  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.

“Pyrrhic Victory.”  Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, 2010.

“Tantalus.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online,

“Tarantism.”  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.

The Benefits of Being a Bibliophile

One could say I am a bibliophile.  My earliest memories include Mama reading The Hobbit aloud, my family listening to audio books on road trips, and my struggling through Dick and Jane books.  Trips to the library posed exciting opportunities to explore new books and reread familiar ones.  Sometimes I perused books that Mama, my sister, or my friend Deborah recommended.  Other times I went rogue and read the books that caught my eye.  Beautiful picture books, fantasy, and fairy tales fascinated me, along with dragons and dogs.  Ever since I was little, books have formed an important part of my life, and reading has influenced me in many ways.

As Emily Dickinson notes in her poem “I Never Saw a Moor,” one can know how a moor looks, what a wave is, and where heaven is without having actually seen them.  Though she traveled little, Dickinson discovered and explored the world through books.  Reading books has instructed me in a similar way.  Books have taken me on boats to India, on camels to ancient Egypt, and in wagons across North America.  As a result, without putting one foot out-of-doors, I have traveled the world.

Statue of Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great

Reading books has also expanded my vocabulary, taught me about etymology, and increased my comprehension of foreign languages.  Stories set in the Middle Ages have introduced me to archaic terms like mickle, wassail, sumpter, and cantle.  Words which my reading has recently familiarized me with include vicarious, effulgent, sanguine, argentine, and miasma.  In reading about the laws of King Alfred the Great of England, I discovered that the Old English prefix “were” means man, hence the words wereguild and werewolf.  Though my English vocabulary has benefited the most from reading, I have also learned some French and Spanish words and phrases from books that mix these languages in with English.

Not only has reading taught me to understand the meanings of words, but it has also taught me to appreciate their individual and collective beauty.  A word can often have character, due to its denotation, connotation, appearance, and sound.  Though poets use rhetorical devices most often, all writers can use these techniques effectively.  As I have discovered from books I have read, the power of good sentences can come from many devices.  Some sentences stand out for their punchy nouns and verbs, for their rhythm, or for their structure.  In others, the author’s use of onomatopoeia, alliteration, consonance, assonance, similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical devices imbues them with beauty.

Far from the Madding CrowdBy exposing me to a wide range of writing styles, reading books has taught me writing skills and enabled me to become a better writer.  I have learned that a key to writing creatively and well is finding common ground with one’s audience and showing them something familiar in a new, crystalline way.  In a few short lines in Idylls of the King, Tennyson sets before one’s eyes a scene in Camelot and shows his readers that Gawain is renowned for feats of arms, whereas Modred is not.  Great authors can sculpt similes and metaphors that connect with readers, skillfully balancing creativity with clarity.  Thomas Hardy in Far from the Madding Crowd says of one elderly character, “He seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer, till it was doubtful he would ever reach it at all” (Hardy 117).

Reading books has impacted me in many ways.  Through reading, I have expanded my knowledge and experience of the world, of language, of rhetoric, and of writing.  I have stretched and strengthened my imagination.  I have filled my mind with new thoughts and increased my understanding of history and the thoughts, feelings, and actions of mankind.  Great authors have taught me how to write well; mediocre authors have shown me styles and subjects to avoid.  Being a bibliophile has fired in me a desire to learn how to share with others the truth, beauty, thrills, laughter, and tears which so many books have brought me.  Reading, books, and knowledge have power to entertain, influence, and instruct, and ever since I began reading, books have influenced me and helped me grow.

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas.  Far from the Madding Crowd.  New York:  Harper & Brothers Publishers, n.d.

Using the Right Language

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)

The other day, I had to explain to a Colombian student that referring to his relatives as his “familiars” not only did not make sense to most people, but technically meant that he was summoning the spirits, mostly likely malevolent, who served him.

Yup, you can say some pretty weird things even when you’re fairly fluent in a language, as this student was, but especially when you’re not, like when American Spanish 101 students try to say they’re “embarrassed” in Spanish. They simply say “embarasado” on the off chance that it’s one of those words you can simply add an “o” to and be done with it. It’s not; what it sounds like is “embarazada,” which means “pregnant.”

And now we know why we shouldn’t make up words, for spoken languages are really one of weirdest things out there, if you really think about it. We make sounds with our mouths (or rather, the instruments behind our mouths) and depending on the order, pitch, and consistency of those sounds, you can order a pizza or start a war.

The possibilities for communication are endless, as are the possibilities for miscommunication, like when a Taiwanese student told me part of the new responsibilities that came with his promotion was “chaining new employees.” Long story short, the word he meant was “training,” and we spent a long time working out how to pronounce that “tr” sound.

My work with international students is full of little incidents like that, some of which make for readily available anecdotes, and others of which are less printable. Let’s just say that I had no idea that, in the right accent, the noun “Falklands” and the verb “taught” could both be heard as quite a different word.

In such cases, I simply explain the mistake, whether it be in vocabulary, pronunciation, or phrasing, and then the student and I practice the right way to do it. Depending on the severity of the mistake, a student might be rather embarrassed, even quite frustrated with themselves. It’s then that I tell them that I also read plenty of American students’ papers, and trust me, they’re native speakers and they say things they don’t mean to all the time. I do too, actually. It’s very easy to get your words twisted around.

But then I think, what about the time when I know exactly what I’m saying, and that it’s not the best thing I could say? What about when what I’m saying isn’t honest, or nice, or uplifting, or even just a necessary truth, and then I say it anyway? There are no excuses then. I’m not missing any words in my vocabulary. These are the phrases that I have known all my life, and now I’m using them very intentionally, in ways that they shouldn’t be wasted.

I see international students practicing their English, working hard to smooth out issues, small and large, until they can communicate like a native speaker. They remind me that all of us should work to improve our language, until we can use the words God gave us in the way they were meant to be used.