Saturday, April 8, 2017

Embarrassing Pregnancies, Part 1: Sp. embarazada and Eng. embarrassed

[This entry comes from Section 1 of Chapter 3 of Part II of the open textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Introduction to Spanish Linguistics]



The Spanish word embarazada and the English word embarrassed are cognates in the sense used in this book, for they derive from a common source. However, they are a classic example of false friends, since the two words have such seemingly different meanings. Spanish embarazada, pronounced /ɾa.ˈsa.da/ or /ɾa.ˈθa.da/,[1] depending on the dialect, means ‘pregnant’ in English. On the other hand, English embarrassed /ɪm.ˈbæ.ɹəst/ means ‘feeling awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed’ and it translates primarily as avergonzado/a in Spanish.

Perhaps another reason that these words are such a canonical example of false friends is that it is not uncommon for students of Spanish to feel self-conscious about speaking up in class and they may sometimes want to express that they are embarrassed, and if they use the adjective embarazada (or embarazado), as in Estoy embarazada ‘I am pregnant’, this is bound to raise some eyebrows and to be quite an embarrassing experience. (Of course, for a male student to say Estoy embarazado would be even more embarrassing.) At any rate, the story of how these words came to have their meanings is quite interesting and can teach us something about the vagaries of meaning change and word borrowing in general. Some aspects of these words’ histories are a bit muddled and unclear, but we know enough to make sense of the big picture.

These two words look very much like they should be ‘useful cognates’ (those that look alike and have the same meaning), but they are not. However, if we go back far enough we find that not only is there a historical connection between the two words, since they derive from the same source, but also to some extent there is a connection between the meanings of the modern-day words. Therefore, as you can imagine, the story of how these words’ meanings have changed is quite interesting.

According to the most credible sources, the story of these words starts in an Iberian Romance language, either in Portuguese or in its neighbor and closely related language, Leonese, which is still spoken in Spain and which exerted some influence on the Spanish language, which originally was known only as Castilian. Leonese is spoken in the area between where Galician-Portuguese is spoken and Castile, where Spanish was born (cf. Part I, Chapter 9, §9.8.3).

Some dictionaries put the origin of English embarrass in Italian imbarrazzo, derived from barra ‘bar’, but that is most likely a mistake, though this word may have had a role to play in the story of how the word got from one language to another. We know that the verb embarazar, and its participle embarazado/a, do not appear in writing in Spanish until the 15th century, which is rather late. We also think that Spanish must have been borrowed it from Leonese or Portuguese, where it already existed, sometime before that. After that, we find it in French and Italian since the 16th century and it is pretty clear that these languages got the word from Spanish. Finally, we do know for sure that English got the word embarrass from French embarrasser in the 17th century.

Sp. embarazada and embarazar


The modern Spanish verb embarazar comes from an earlier Old Spanish embaraçar, from an identical word in Leonese or Portuguese. The letter ç symbolized the sound [ʦ̪], which centuries later changed to [s] or [θ] in Spanish, after which the spelling was changed to z〉 (cf. Part I, Chapter 7, §7.9.11, and Chapter 10, §10.5.3). The verb embaraçar was derived from the noun baraça in Leonese and Portuguese, which can be translated into English as ‘(hunting) rope, cord, snare, trap’. This word is not of Latin origin and it is thought it may have a pre-Romanic origin, Celtic in particular, since eastern Spain was inhabited by Celts before the Romans arrived. Thus, the original meaning of the verb embaraçar was ‘to tie down with a rope; snare, trap’. Therefore, the original meaning of embarazadaand embarazado, of coursewas ‘tied down, snared, trapped’.

‘(hunting) rope, cord, snare, trap’
‘to snare, trap, snarl up, entangle’
‘trapped, ensnared, entangled’
Table 149: Original words derived from the root baraç

A second figurative sense of the verb embaraçar developed even before the verb was borrowed into Spanish and the original, literal meaning disappeared. These second meaning is something like ‘to hinder, obstruct, block’. This is one of the main meanings the word embaraçar still has in modern Portuguese, though other related senses have cropped up (including supposedly the sense ‘to embarrass’, cf. Table 150). It is also the same main meaning that French embarrass has and, finally, it also the same meaning that embarrass had when it first appeared in English, though the meaning has changed, as we shall see. 

embaraçar ( modern Portuguese)
transitive verb:
(impedir) to hinder, (complicar) to complicate, (encabular) to embarrass, (confundir) to confuse, (obstruir) to block
reflexive verb
to become embarrassed
Table 150: Meanings of modern Portuguese embaraçar
(including several transitive senses and one intransitive (reflexive) sense. In parentheses are the sense headings in Portuguese and next to it is the English translation (Collins))

For a verb that meant ‘to trap, entangle, etc.’ to come to meaning something less literal and more general, such as ‘to hinder, obstruct’ is not at all rare (see Part I, Chapter 3, §3.6).

Although some dictionaries tell us that Spanish embarazar and embarazado/a can still have this ‘hinder’ meaning, the truth is that probably no speaker of Spanish would use these words in that sense nowadays and we can say that that sense is archaic, if not outright obsolete. The ‘hinder’ meaning has been replaced in Spanish by a new meaning for the words embarazar and embarazada (there is no longer embarazado), which now primarily mean, respectively, ‘to get someone pregnant’ (‘to knock up’ in slang) and ‘pregnant’. This new meaning has taken over the old one.

The original meaning of the word, ‘to hinder’, can be expressed in Modern Spanish by verbs such as impedir, estorbar, and dificultar. The original sense can still be seen in the derived verb desembarazarse (de) ‘to rid oneself (of), to get rid (of)’ (des+en+baraz+ar+se), as in Me desembaracé de mis perseguidores ‘I shook off my pursuers’. 

There is a third sense of the stem embaraz‑ in Spanish, one that is related to the second one. This sense can be found in the derived Spanish adjective embarazoso/a ‘awkward, troublesome, bothersome, annoying’ (en+baraz+os+o/a), as in una situación embarazosa ‘an awkward situation’. This ‘bother, annoy’ sense is thought to have developed in French and to have come into Spanish from French after the root was borrowed by French from Spanish.

It is not too difficult to imagine how the ‘pregnancy’ sense of these words could have come changed from the earlier sense ‘to hinder, obstruct’. The use of for this purpose must have started as a euphemism (cf. Part I, Chapter 6, §6.4.2). Although we do not have evidence for this, the ‘pregnancy’ sense of the word embaraçada could very have started as a euphemism. The new meaning became so prevalent and to render the original sense obsolete. As for when exactly this change in the meaning of the word took place, it is not clear, but it is likely it happened after the word was borrowed by French in the 16th century.

As we said earlier, embarazar in Modern Spanish means ‘to make pregnant’, but it is likely that the ‘pregnancy’ sense was acquired first by the participle/adjective embarazada, and only later by the verb embarazar. Remember that the adjective embarazada is first and foremost the feminine past participle of the verb embarazar. Thus from the verb embarazar (en+baraz+ar) (‘to make pregnant’ in Modern Spanish), the participle embarazada is derived by means of the suffix ‑ad‑ and the feminine ‑a ending (en+baraz+ad+a). 

Note that Spanish embarazada is both an adjective and a past participle. Remember that Spanish, even more so than English, can turn past participles into adjectives quite easily (cf. Part I, Chapter 5). Thus, for instance, Sp. abierto can be an adjective meaning ‘open’, but it is derived from the homonymous past participle abierto ‘opened’ of the verb abrir ‘to open’. And the Spanish adjective callado ‘silent, quiet’ (as in Juan es muy callado ‘Juan is very quiet/a very quiet person’ or in Juan está muy callado ‘Juan is very silent’), comes from the homonymous past participle callado, ‘gone silent’ or ‘made to be silent’, of the verb callar ‘to shut up, be silent’. 

Thus, we can see that in Modern Spanish, embarazada too can be both an adjective and a past participle. The adjective embarazada just means ‘pregnant’, as in Marta está embarazada ‘Marta is pregnant’.  But the homonymous past participle embarazada, from the verb embarazar ‘to make pregnant’, means ‘made pregnant’ or, in English slang, ‘knocked up’, as in Marta fue embarazada ‘Marta was made pregnant’.

Eng. embarrass

The French verb embarrasser, from which English embarrass was borrowed as early as the 17th century has had several senses through the ages, some of which have at one point or another been used in English writing, as any dictionary will tell us, though they are not necessarily known to but a few speakers of Modern English. The Petit Robert French dictionary gives us two main senses for modern-day, transitive (non-reflexive) embarrasser, namely (1) to block, clutter, encumber and (2) to put in a difficult situation, to perplex, to make ill-at-ease (the Grand Robert French dictionary has many more senses, some of which are archaic).

The current meaning of the English verb embarrass clearly ranges from something identical to the second French sense (‘awkward’) to a sense derived from it involving shame and bashfulness (‘ashamed’). According to the OED this sense came into the existing English word embarrass in the 19th century. The OED describes this sense as ‘to make (a person) feel awkward or ashamed, especially by one’s speech or actions’. The COED dictionary describes the meaning as ‘to cause to feel awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed’ (COED). Any other sense this word may have had seems to be obsolete in current English. In other words, for most speakers this is not only the main meaning of the word, but rather its only meaning.

Moving on to words that are derived from the verb embarrass, we have the derived form embarrassed, which can be a past tense verb form (as in She embarrassed me), a past participle (as in She has embarrassed me), or an adjective (as in She is embarrassed) where no agency is involved. This is the original word that we started the chapter speaking about, as in the sentence I am embarrassed. All these words have Spanish equivalents derived from the noun vergüenza, as we will see in the next section.

Another derived word is the noun embarrassment, which is somewhat stronger than the adjective and can be defined as ‘a feeling of self-consciousness, shame, or awkwardness’ (COED). There is also an expression in English, embarrassment of riches, which means something like ‘an overabundance of choices’, or ‘to be flustered/confused from so many good things to choose from’. The expression comes from the title of a well-known 18th century French play L’embarras des richesses, with the same meaning. Probably the most common way to express this in Spanish would be demasiado donde elegir (ESD-GU).

[1] The sound [θ] is the sound of the letter z, as in zapato ‘shoe’, and the letter c before e or i, as in cereza ‘cherry’, in most of Spain. Most other speakers of Spanish (all of those speakers outside Spain, or more than 90% of all Spanish speakers) pronounce these letters the same as the letter s, namely as [s]. From now on we will not give the two possible pronunciations for words containing these letters, but only the [θ] sound. To convert these transcriptions to those of most speakers, replace [θ] with [s]. Do not be concerned for now about the difference between square brackets [] and slanted lines // to enclose transcriptions. This is explained in Part I, Chapter 7.

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