Etymological Stereotyping

Wanting to make a big pot of Mulligatawny a few nights ago, I finally got around to unpacking my Christmas blender. Consulting the manual, I was amused to discover that the Spanish name is the macho and sinister ‘licuadora’, while the French name is the wimpy and over-educated ‘mélangeur’. I suppose the effect is partially offset by the Spanish liquidator being grammatically feminine (would that make it a ‘liquidatrix’ in English?), while the French melange-maker is grammatically masculine.

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One Response to Etymological Stereotyping

  1. Alfred M. Kriman says:

    A native speaker, of course, ceases to notice common coincidences like this, making them fodder for puns.  I certainly grew up calling our blender la licuadora and never minding that una liquidación was a `liquidation sale.’ So native English speakers, I think, rarely connect the latter sense with the violent figurative sense (which also occurs in Spanish).

    Further, however, multiple distant meanings for a single word are much more common in Spanish than English. I suppose this is obvious, but favorite examples include
    the following:

    bomba: `pump’ and `bomb.’ The latter in the
    sense of an explosive device.

    explotar: `explode’ and `exploit.’ Its use in the latter sense is more restricted than that of the
    corresponding English word, though it certainly applies
    to labor and minable resources.

    (By this point you can imagine how much more exciting a fiery union meeting for firemen (bomberos) might be.

    celoso: `jealous’ and `zealous.’

    (Slang makes the situation much worse than it appears in dictionaries.)

    As the translations above indicate, English in these cases has distinct words borrowed multiple (in the above instances merely twice), ultimately from Latin or Greek. The reduced number of distinct words in Spanish is exacerbated by two facts: (1) Spanish has fewer sounds than English. (2) The spelling of Spanish is highly phonetic. [Some people have occasionally thought that it might be of some use for English to have a more phonetic orthography. The argument might be made that a quasi-etymological orthography like that of English, or better French, might be useful in disambiguating Spanish.]

    The situation with Portuguese is (1) and has (2) been different. Portuguese seems sound-rich to a Spanish-speaker. Its spelling is not so reliably phonetic, but it has been moving in that direction, as
    illustrated by the word commando. This was borrowed from the Portuguese in southern Africa by their
    Boer neighbors, and from them in turn by the English at the beginning of the twentieth century. As it happens, just around the time the English borrowed it, it was becoming a misspelling in Portuguese: a major reform adopted in the Portuguese-speaking countries in 1911-1915 moved the spelling in the direction of the more phonetic Spanish and Italian style. Geminate consonants like that in commando largely disappeared.

    Returning to Spanish and its overloaded words: the word acepción is common in Spanish, whereas its English cognates (hey, it couldn’t have just one), acceptation and the older form acception are rare. Oh sure, we have meaning, sense, signification, just as Spanish has sentido, significado, significación, ([older:]significamiento), but I think it’s more than just a matter of fashion that Spanish uses a specialized word for the specific sense of a word or phrase. The word does occur in English technical writing (linguistics, etc.), but it always seemed to me that the use in Spanish always carries a strong sense that the acceptation is one of many possible in different contexts. In English, one isn’t surprised if a word has essentially one meaning.

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