Monday, October 30, 2017

Words about religion, Part 2: Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 43 (Words about Religion) of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Another major Christian celebration, at least for many Christian denominations, is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallow’s Day or Hallowmas, among other names (saints were known as hallows in Old English, as we shall see). In Spanish, it is called Día de Todos los Santos, which literally means 'all saints' day' or 'day of all the saints'. In Christianity, a saint is primarily 'a person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth' (AHD). It became a tradition in early Christianity to celebrate saints every year on the day of their death but as more an more saints started to fill the calendar, a catch-all day to celebrate the many lesser known and anonymous ones was established in the early 7th century.

All Saints’ Day has taken place on November 1 for the last 1,300 years or so. The purpose of this day is to celebrate all saints, known and unknown, and it is celebrated in the Catholic tradition as well as in some Protestant traditions, though we shouldn’t forget that until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, all European Christians were Catholic, and Christianity in the Americas descends from European Christianity. As we said, this Christian tradition started in the early 7th century, though there had been an earlier tradition of celebrating All Martyrs Day since the 3rd century. For the first hundred years or so, in the 7th century, All Saints’ Day was celebrated on May 1st, not on November 1st. It is quite likely that the date was moved to November because that is around the time that some pre-Christian European cultures, in particular the Celtic ones, remembered the dead, in a celebration known as Samhain, ‘the first day of November, celebrated by the ancient Celts as a festival marking the beginning of winter and of the new year according to their calendar’ (OED). Many traditional cultures in the northern hemisphere had a special celebration at the end of the summer (warm weather), associated with life, and the beginning of winter (cold weather), associated with death. The setting of this celebration at this time is just one more of the many attempts of early Christianity to take over key pagan celebrations in order to gain acceptance, as we have seen.

In the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, in the Semitic and Greek worlds where Christianity started, the day ended at dusk and thus the day started in what for us would be the evening before, as night-time began. Because of this, many traditional religious holidays start in what to us is the evening of the holiday's previous day, the holiday’s eve (cf. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, etc.). The evening before All Saints’ Day, that is, October 31, is known traditionally in English as All Hallows’ (Day’s) Eve or, more commonly, in a compressed version of this phrase, Halloween. In Spanish, this day (or actually evening) is called Víspera de Todos los Santos, literally ‘All Saints’ Day’s Eve’ (see below for more information about the unrelated words Eng. eve and Sp. víspera).[1]

The day after All Saints’ Day, that is, November 2, is known as All Souls’ Day in English. This date was added to the other one (or two, if you count October 31st as a separate day) in the 11th century to form the Allhallowtide triduum.[1]  All Souls’ Day is dedicated to the ‘faithfully departed’, that is to say, the dead. It is formally known in Spanish as Día de los Difuntos or Conmemoración a los Fieles Difuntos, though it is also more informally known as Día de los Muertos o Día de los Difuntos or even, less commonly, Día de las ánimas.[2] In Spanish-speaking countries, November 2 is the day in which people traditionally visit the tombstones of their departed relatives. In the Christian tradition, it is a day to pray for the souls of the departed, especially those who might still be in Purgatory, which in Catholic doctrine is ‘a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven’ (COED).

Figure 157: All Souls’ Day, oil painting by Jakob Schikaneder (1888)[i]
Elderly woman next to the tomb of a loved one

This two-day day period (November 1-2), plus the eve of the first day’s (October 31), which was dedicated to celebrating the dead, including saints, martyrs, and the departed in general, was traditionally known in English as Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, all compound words that are now archaic. More modern equivalents of these names are the Hallowmas season or the time or season of All Saints’ Day. In Spanish, the phrase Todos los Santos is sometimes used informally to refer to this 2-or-3-day period of celebration.[ii]

The word tide in the old-fashioned names we just saw is now only used with the sense ‘the alternate rising and falling of the sea due to the attraction of the moon and sun’ (COED), but in the Old English period it meant ‘time, period, era’. The original sense of this word is also found in now uncommon (but not obsolete) expressions such as Christmastide ‘Christmas time’, Eastertide ‘Easter time’, eveningtide or eventide ‘evening time’, and morningtide ‘morning time’.

The English word hallow [ˈhæ.loʊ̯] that we saw in several words referring to this season has an interesting story. This word is rather rare in modern English, at least in American English. The derived adjective hallowed, meaning ‘highly venerated’ or ‘sacrosanct’ (AHD), is perhaps more common, often heard in phrases such as hallowed ground or hallowed war heroes. The word hallow is mostly only a verb today, but in earlier times it could also be a noun that meant ‘a saint or holy person’, which is the sense we find in expressions like All Hallows’ Eve.

The English noun hallow, which descends from Old English hālga ‘holy one, saint’,  could also be used to refer to shrines or relics associated with holy personsor, in pre-Christian times, godssuch as magical objects. In Middle English, this noun changed to halwe and its meaning was ‘a saint’, as well as ‘holy thing, shrine’. The noun hallow is archaic in Modern English. In recent times, many English speakers probably encountered the noun hallow for the first time in the last novel of the Harry Potter series of children’s books, which had the title Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In this novel, the word hallows referred to magical objects, since the deathly hallows are three highly powerful magical objects that were created by Death.

The English verb to hallow means ‘to make holy, consecrate, sanctify’ or ‘venerate, greatly revere’. It comes from Old English hālgian, which also meant ‘to hallow, sanctify, make holy’. In Middle English, the word changed to halwen, but its meaning was the same. This verb is equivalent to Spanish bendecir, consagrar, and santificar. Although the noun and the verb are homonymous in Modern English, that is, they sound and are spelled the same way, we have seen that they were slightly different in earlier times, sharing a root but having different endings or suffixes.

Both the verb and the noun hallow are related to the adjective holy, which was hāliġ or hāleġ in Old English and which meant ‘holy, consecrated, sacred, venerated, godly, saintly’. They all share the same root, a root that is also found in words like whole and health. Eng. whole, the most basic of all these words, comes from Old Eng. hāl, meaning ‘healthy, safe, whole, free from injury’. The adjective holy is derived from whole, by the addition of the adjectival suffix -y, as in messy and runny.[3] Although it is hard to know exactly, the OED guesses that the meaning of the Old English version of holy meant ‘that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated’ (OED).

When the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity in the 7th century, the Old English words holy, hallow, and to hallow came to be used to translate Latin Christian words. The adjective holy translated the Latin adjective sanctus (feminine sancta) that meant as ‘holy, saintly’. The noun hallow translated the Latin nouns sanctus and sancta that meant ‘saint’ (a person), source of Sp. santo (shortened to san before a name) and santa and derived from the adjective that we just saw. The Old English verb to hallow came to be used to translate the Latin verb sanctifĭcāre ‘to make holy’ (source of Spanish learned santificar ‘to sanctify, make holy’). The noun saint was borrowed later into English, in the 12th century, from Fr. saint (fem. seinte), meaning both ‘a saint’ and ‘a holy relic’, the same as hallow. This word has come to replace hallow to a large extent, though without the meaning ‘holy relic’ any longer. The verb sanctify was borrowed later, in the 14th century, from Fr. saintefier. This verb has pretty much replaced the verb to hallow. Thus Eng. saint is a cognate of Sp. santo/a and Eng. sanctify is a cognate of Sp. santificar.

By the way, the words Eng. saint and Sp. santo/a come from Lat. sanctus/a, passive participle of the verb sancīre that meant primarily ‘to consecrate, appoint as sacred’, that is, ‘to render, make or appoint as sacred or inviolable by a religious act’, something very close to what the verb to hallow meant in Old English. Thus, the Latin participle sānctus meant something like ‘made inviolable or established as sacred’. In Late Latin, this participle was converted into a noun, as we have seen, meaning what it means today, namely ‘a saint’, ‘a person who lives a holy and virtuous life’. In Catholic and Orthodox creed, a saint is ‘a person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth’ (AHD).

In addition to the word hallow ‘saint’, in the word Halloween, and its fuller form All Hallows’ Eve, we also find the word eve. As we mentioned in previous sections, in ancient traditions, the day starts at dusk, not at midnight as it does now, on what we now call the eve of the day. Modern English eve, pronounced [ˈiv] comes from Old English æfen, pronounced [ˈæ.ven], which descends from Proto-Germanic *ēbanþs. The Old English word referred primarily to ‘the time between sunset and darkness’, whereas in Modern English, eve means ‘the day or period of time immediately before an event’ and, in particular, ‘the evening or day before a religious festival’ (COED), a sense it acquired in the 13th century. The equivalent of Eng. eve in Spanish is víspera. Sp. víspera [ˈɾa] ‘day before’ comes from Lat. vespera ‘evening, eventide’. We find a descendant of this word in Eng. vespers ‘a service of evening prayer’ (COED).

The word eve is related to the word evening [ˈiv.nɪŋ], from Old English æfnung ‘the coming of evening, sunset, time around sunset’. The word evening is a hard one to translate into Spanish, since there are several words that can be used to express this meaning. One of them is tarde, a word that as an adverb means ‘late’ as in Llegar tarde ‘to arrive late’.[4] As a noun, however, tarde is typically often translated as afternoon, but it is a period of time that goes from noon until it gets dark, when the noche ‘night’ starts, which thus includes the early evening time.[5] For the late evening time, after it is fully dark, which can be quite early in winter and quite late in summer in the northern hemisphere, we can use noche to translate evening in Spanish. The compound tarde-noche is also sometimes used to translate Eng. evening, though it is quite rare.

(Actually, the meaning of words having to do with times of the day can also depend on customary daily routines in a culture. For instance, the word mediodía, which supposedly means ‘noon’, lit. ‘half day’, does not correspond to the English word noon in Spain, where most people understand mediodía as ‘lunch-time’, which can be as late as 2-3pm.)


mediodía ‘noon’

tarde ‘after lunch’
noche ‘after dark’

Going back to our Hallowmas celebrations, we have seen that, traditionally, the celebration of All Saints’ Day, which is on November 1st, started on the evening before, namely, on October 31. The traditional name for this time in English is Halloween, or Hallowe’en, pronounced today either [ˈhæ.lə.ˌwin] or [ˌhæ.lə.ˈwin], with the main stress on either the first or the last syllable. This word is nothing but a contraction of the phrase All Hallows’ Even. The word even comes from Scots, the dialect of English used in the Lowlands of Scotland. In this dialect, eve and evening are both even, usually contracted to e’en or een.

In England, there existed many Halloween-related traditions, such as trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, and costume parties, which have eventually morphed into the modern-day traditions. These traditions are thought to have originated from pagan Celtic harvest festivals, in particularly the Gaelic end-of-summer festival of Samhain. In other words, the pagan, Celtic festival of Samhain was Christianized as Halloween. For the Celts, this day marked the start of winter and beginning of the year, a time of encounter between the living and the dead, which fit well with the Christian tradition of remembering and honoring the dead.

The traditional Halloween is known in Spanish is known as Víspera de Todos los Santos (All Saint’s Day Eve), which did not have any special significance in the Spanish-speaking world, other than being the traditional start of the Todos los Santos celebration. In recent years, however, the influence of the children-centered Halloween celebrations coming from English-speaking countries has started to be felt in many Spanish-speaking countries. Such child-centered partying is also known in Spanish as Halloween, pronounced [xa.lo.ˈɡu̯in], or else as Noche de (las) brujas ‘Night of (the) Witches’. The day itself is also known Día de (las) brujas ‘Day of (the) Witches’.[iii]

The focus of the traditional All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the use of humor and ridicule to confront death, which is the source of the present-day children’s activities, which for most people is all that is left of this traditionally Christian celebration.[iv] The modern Halloween celebrations and customs in the English-speaking world were brought to North America by the Irish and the Welsh in the 19th century and contributed to the modern child-centered tradition.

A major modern Halloween tradition in North America and the British Isles involves children going door-to-door in costume demanding candy, a practice known as trick-or-treat or to go trick-or-treating, which refers to ‘a children’s custom of calling at houses at Halloween with the threat of pranks if they are not given a small gift’ (COED).[v] The source of this recent tradition seems to be the practice of souling in late medieval times in Europe, in which poor people would go house-to-house on All Saints Day offering a prayer for the dead in exchange for some food.[vi] Interestingly, as we just mentioned, the children’s tradition of trick-or-treating has spread to many Spanish-speaking countries in recent years.[vii] The Spanish-speaking world has not settled yet on a phrase equivalent to trick-or-treat, though some vying candidates seem to be dulce o truco, truco o trato (or traco o truco), dulce o travesura, and treta o trato.[viii]

Most of these expressions are quite bad renderings of the original English expression, which they attempt to calque. The Spanish word truco can mean ‘trick’, but mostly only the sense of trick that means ‘skill, knack’ or ‘deception, ruse’, not the sense that means ‘prank, joke’, which translates as broma. The Spanish word trato does not mean ‘treat’, but rather ‘deal’ or ‘treatment’. The word treta means ‘trick, ruse’ and is not a bad translation of the sense of trick in trick-or-treat.

This same period coincides with the celebration of Día de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the dead’ in Mexico, where it is a national holiday that lasts the two already-mentioned days (November 1-2).[ix] In pre-Columbian Mexico, the celebration of the dead was already a big deal for the indigenous cultures, and it used to be celebrated in the summertime. However, upon the arrival of Christianity, the celebration was moved to coincide with the Catholic festival of Allhallowtide. Similar celebrations involving the dead are found in other parts of Latin America, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Brazil. The Día de los Muertos celebration until recently was restricted to southern parts of Mexico and it was rejected in other areas as having too many pagan elements, but now it is a public holiday throughout the country.

Figure 158: La Catarina or Lady of the Dead
In Mexican folk culture, the Catarina is one of the most popular 

figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico[x]

In the Spanish Allhallowtide tradition, the first day, November 1st, is known as Día de los Inocentes (‘day of the innocents’) or, in some countries, Día de los Angelitos (‘day of the little angels’) and it is dedicated to deceased infants and children. This Día de los Inocentes celebration should not to be confused with the Día de los Santos Inocentes in Catholic tradition, which in English, is called (Holy) Innocents’ Day or Childermas. This day marks the Biblical narrative of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews, an event known in English as the Massacre of the Innocents.[xi] This day, which in Catholic tradition is celebrated on December 28, is also known in Spanish as Día de las bromas ‘day of the practical jokes’, and is the Hispanic equivalent of April Fool’s Day in English-speaking (and some other European) countries.[xii] The reason for this seems to be that the word inocente, in addition to ‘innocent’ or ‘not guilty’, can also mean ‘naïve, sucker’ in Spanish. The tradition of playing tricks on people on this day seems to have started from the double meaning of the word inocente in Spanish.

There is little doubt that this three-day long Christian celebration was another appropriation of earlier pagan rites going back millennia during the process of Christianization.[xiii] We have already mentioned the fall or end-of-summer (and beginning-of-winter) or harvest festivals that were commonly found in pre-Christian societies, such as Celtic festival of Samhain. The celebration of Thanksgiving, kwown as (Día de) Acción de Gracias in Spanish, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States (on the second Monday in October in Canada), has also been interpreted by some as a form of harvest celebration inherited from earlier times when the agricultural cycle was much more ever-present in people’s lives.[xiv]

[1] The earliest records of the practice of starting the day at nightfall are found in Babylon, which seems to be where the Jews picked it up during their exile there starting in the 6th century BCE. In the early books of the Hebrew Bible, the word for ‘day’ refers just to the daylight hours and it contrasts with the word for ‘night’. The Greeks and the Phoenicians also reckoned the day from sunset to sunset. The Romans, on the other hand, started the day at midnight, a tradition that we now follow in the West and in the whole world more generally. Other peoples reckoned the full day from sunrise to sunrise.

[2] The word difunto/a (originally, defunto/a) means ‘deceased’. It is a cognate of Eng. defunct ‘no longer existing or functioning’ (Sp. en desuso, caduco/a; desaparecido/a, extinto/a; difunto/a). Both words come from Lat. dēfunctus, passive participle of the verb dēfungī ‘to perform, finish, carry out’, used in the expression dēfungor vītā ‘to die’ (lit. ‘to be done with life’). The derived noun defunción means ‘death, decease’. The word ánima is a learned version of Sp. alma ‘soul’, from Latin ănĭma ‘soul’ (originally, ‘air, breeze, wind; the breath of life; life’).

[3] The English adjectival suffix ‑y descends from Old English ‑ig, which descends from Proto-Germanic *-igaz, which is a cognate of the Latin suffix ‑ic‑us and the Ancient Greek suffix ‑ικός (-ik‑ós).

[4] Note that the adverb tarde cannot be used with the verbs ser or estar, because unlike Eng. late, it cannot be used as an adjective. Thus, there is no simple way to translate Eng. to be late. To express that meaning, different verbs must be used with the adverb tarde, as in llegar tarde ‘to arrive late’ or empezar tarde ‘to start late’. Additionally, other verbs can be used to express this meaning such as atrasarse, retrasarse, demorarse, llevar retraso, ir retrasado, ir con retraso, andar retrasado, or andar con retraso.

The adverb tarde comes from the Latin adverb tardē that meant ‘slowly’ and ‘late’. It was derived from the adjective tardus, that meant ‘slow, sluggish’, ‘tardy, late’, as well as ‘dull, stupid, slow-witted’. Also derived from this adjective was the verb tardāre which meant ‘to make slow, to hinder, delay, etc.’. This verb is the source of Sp. tardar ‘to take a long time’. In English, the adjectives tardy (Sp. tardío/a) and retarded (Sp. retrasado/a) contain this Latin root as well.

[5] In some Spanish-speaking countries, such as Spain, the tarde is not considered to start until after lunch, which can start quite late, such as 2:00-3:00pm. Thus, the tarde does not start until around 4:00pm or 5:00pm in such countries. Thus, in Spain, one cannot typically translate afternoon as tarde. If one means afternoon literally as after noon, one should probably say después del mediodía, lit. ‘after noon’.

[i] Source: Jakub Schikaneder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, (2018.10.27)
[iv] Portaro, Sam (25 January 1998). A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Cowley Publications. p. 199: “All Saints’ Day is the centerpiece of an autumn triduum. In the carnival celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve our ancestors used the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule to confront the power of death. The following day, in the commemoration of All Saints, we gave witness to the victory of incarnate goodness embodied in remarkable deeds and doers triumphing over the misanthropy of darkness and devils. And in the commemoration of All Souls we proclaimed the hope of common mortality expressed in our aspirations and expectations of a shared eternity.” Quoted in
[xii] This day commemorates the killing of innocent children by King Herod described in the two of the books of the New Testament, cf.,

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Seña/signo & sign: The root SIGN-, Part 3

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 26, "Seña/signo & sign: The root SIGN-", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Verbs and nouns derived from the root sĭgnāre by prefixation


Latin had a number of verbs derived from the verb sĭgnāre by prefixation. Several of these have made it into Spanish and English and remain common to this day. Some of the Spanish verbs are patrimonial, such as enseñar ‘to show; to teach’, diseñar ‘to design’, and reseñar ‘to review, describe’ (the associated noun is reseña ‘review’). Additionally, Spanish has a number of learned (borrowed) versions of Latin words derived from sĭgnāre by prefixation. Many of these words have English cognates. The main Latin verbs derived from sĭgnāre by prefixation are the following:

+ sĭgnāre
‘to appoint to, assign, distribute, allot, allocate’
‘to (fix a) seal; put on record; establish; attest/authenticate’
‘to mark out, point out, trace, designate, define’
(Vulgar Latin) ‘to engrave’
‘to sign, seal’
‘to unseal, open; to give back, give up, resign; to annul, cancel’
‘to mark, undersign, enter, register; to mortgage’

Sp. diseñar and Eng. design

Both the Spanish verb diseñar and its English cognate to design [dɪ.ˈzaɪ̯n] mean something like ‘to make drawings or plans before something is made or created’. Because of the letter ñ on this word, one might be tempted to think that this word is a patrimonial word, but it is actually a 16th century borrowing from Italian disegnare, pronounced [di.seɲ.ˈɲa.ɾe], meaning ‘to draw’. This word ultimately comes from Latin dēsĭgnāre or dissĭgnāre (both spellings are found for basically the same verb since Lat. dis‑ came to have a similar meaning to dē‑ in Latin). This Latin verb had at least two major senses: ‘to signal, make a mark, mark out, trace out’ and ‘to designate, appoint, denote’. This verb was formed from the verb sĭgnāre ‘to make a mark’ by adding the prefix dē‑ ‘out, etc.’ or dis‑ ‘apart, reversal, etc.’ (variant allomorph: dī).

dē‑ ‘out, etc.’
‘to signal, make a mark, mark out, indicate, describe, etc.’

In Spanish, the corresponding noun to the verb diseñar is diseño, which is equivalent to the English noun design. This noun appears in Spanish writings later than the verb in the 16th century. The ultimate source is It. disegno¸ which is derived by conversion from the verb.

The English verb to design and the noun design came into English in the 16th century, presumably through French and ultimately from Italian. The story of these two words is somewhat confused. Let us start with the noun design, which is a loanword from Middle French desseign ‘purpose, project, design’, which got it from Italian disegno. This Italian word had what can be seen as two major different senses: ‘model, picture’ and ‘purpose’, seemingly derived from the two major senses the source word had in Latin. Below you can see the three main meanings of the English noun design, the first two are derived from the ‘model, picture’ sense and the third one from the purpose one:

design n.
·   a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function of something before it is built or made.
·   a decorative pattern
·   the purpose or planning that exists behind an action or object.

French ended up differentiating the two senses in the spelling, using dessein for ‘purpose, plan’ and dessin for ‘design in art’ (OED), but English kept them as a single polysemous word. (Note that the two French words have the same pronunciation, namely [de.ˈsɛ̃].)

Only the first two senses of the English noun design translate into Spanish as diseño. The third one, which can be paraphrased as ‘intention, plot’, translates by a word that shares the same root, namely designio, a learned loan from Latin desĭgnĭum, the source of It. disegno and, thus, a cognate. There may have been an older patrimonial version of this word, namely deseño, but it was replaced by the learned version. The Spanish word designio, however, is quite fancy. Better translations of this sense of the English noun design are intención, propósito, objetivo, or plan.

The third sense of Eng. design is admittedly rare. It is used primarily in two idiomatic phrases. The first one is by design, which translates into Spanish as deliberadamente (cf. Eng. deliberately) or some other synonymous phrases. The second idiomatic phrase is to have designs on something or someone, which means ‘to aim to obtain, especially in an underhand way’ and, informally, ‘to have an undisclosed sexual interest in’ (COED). This expression translates into Spanish as tener los ojos puestos en algo/alguien.

The situation with the verbs related to the noun design are equally confused. The Italian verb dissegnare also had two major senses in the 16th century. They would eventually be borrowed into French at different times, and from there they were borrowed by English and perhaps also by Spanish, though maybe the Spanish words were obtained directly from Italian. In French, the two senses eventually came to have different spellings:

(1)  désigner ‘appoint, name, choose’: related to Eng. designate and Sp. designar
(2)  dessiner ‘to draw, delineate, design’: related to Eng. design and Sp. diseñar

For the artistic sense, English has the verb to design (a cognate of Sp. diseñar). It may have been borrowed from French désigner though it may also have been derived from the noun design, which was presumably borrowed first.[a] When English first obtained the verb design it seems to have had both of the original meanings, but sense (1) has been now been taken over by the learned designate, a 17th century coinage which means ‘give a specified name, position, or status to’ (COED). Spanish too now has the learned word (cultismo) designar for this sense as well, which is a cognate. This word was already attested in the mid-14th century.

The two verbs Eng. designate [ˈdɛ.zɪɡ.neɪ̯t] and Sp. designar [d̪e.siɡ.ˈnaɾ] are pretty close friends, but they are not perfect matches. They share the ‘appoint’ sense (synonyms: Sp. nombrar, Eng. appoint) and to some extent also a more formal and more rare ‘indicate, show’ sense (synonym: indicar, señalar). Spanish uses designar with yet a third sense, namely the ‘fix, set a place or date’ sense, which translates into English as to fix, to set, or to arrange.

From the verb design, English has derived the agentive noun designer for ‘someone who designs’. It is formed with the English agentive suffix ‑er. The equivalent of this noun in Spanish is a noun derived from the verb diseñar with the agentive suffix ‑dor(a): diseñador(a). In the world of theater, a (set) designer is known in Spanish as an escenógrafo/a. The English noun designer is often used as a modifier in compounds such as designer clothes or designer drug. These phrases have been calqued into Spanish by means of the noun diseño, cf. ropa de diseño (also ropa de marca), droga de diseño.

Sp. enseñar

The verb enseñar is very common in Spanish. It has two main senses, which can be easily distinguished in context according to what it is that follows the verb:

(1)  ‘to show/reveal’, as in Me enseñó el libro ‘She showed me the book’
(2)  ‘to teach’, as in Me enseñó a leer ‘She taught me how to read’

In some cases, the actual sense intended may not be clear, resulting in ambiguous sentences, such as Me enseñó el camino ‘She showed/taught me the way’. Also, the ‘show/reveal’ sense typically refers to a voluntary act, but in some contexts it can be understood as involuntary, as in Enseñas la pantorrilla ‘Your lower leg is showing’.

ĭn‑ ‘in’ + sĭgnāre
‘to mark with a sign; to distinguish; to engrave’

Enseñar is a patrimonial word whose source is Vulgar Latin insĭgnāre ‘mark with a sign, to engrave’, formed with the prefix ĭn‑ ‘in’ and the verb sĭgnāre ‘to make a mark’ (principal parts: insignō, insignāre, insignāvī, insignātum). Actually, this first conjugation Vulgar Latin insĭgnāre is derived from the fourth conjugation Classical Latin verb insĭgnīre, which meant ‘mark with a characteristic feature; to distinguish’ (principal parts: insĭgniō, insĭgnīre, insĭgnīvī, insĭgnītum). It seems that the conjugation of this verb was regularized in Vulgar Latin, probably by analogy with other first conjugation verbs formed from first conjugation sĭgnāre.

The meaning change from ‘make a mark’ to ‘show’ and ‘teach’ is not as far-fetched as it might seem. It turns out that already in Latin this verb could mean ‘to make something known by pointing or signaling’ (note that the Spanish word for to point out is señalar). From there to the main two meanings that enseñar has in Modern Spanish is not a long way. The Portuguese cognate ensinar has both senses, just like Spanish, so these two senses may have been part of these words from very early on. Cognates of this verb in other Romance languages, however, only have the ‘teach, instruct’ sense, such as French enseigner [ɑ̃.se.ˈɲe] and Italian insegnare [in.seɲ.ˈɲa.ɾe].

A very common word derived from Spanish enseñar is enseñanza, which is equivalent to Eng. education, teaching, schooling, and instruction. Examples of this word in common phrases are enseñanza secundaria ‘secondary education’, enseñanza obligatoria ‘compulsory education’, enseñanza superior ‘higher education’, centro de enseñanza ‘school’, enseñanza en línea ‘online education’, and dedicarse a la enseñanza ‘to be a teacher’. It can also mean ‘teaching, doctrine’, as in las enseñanzas de Jesús ‘the teachings of Jesus’.

Interestingly, in some dialects of Spanish the reflexive form of the verb enseñar, namely enseñarse, literally ‘to teach oneself’, is the main or only way to express the meaning ‘to learn’, which in standard Spanish is usually expressed by the verb aprender. Finally, the noun enseñante is sometimes used to refer to an educator, though its use is not as common as the words educador or instructor to express this meaning.

As we mentioned earlier, the verb īnsĭgnāre is unlike other prefixed ‑sĭgnāre verbs, in that it was originally a fourth conjugation verb in Classical Latin, namely īnsĭgnīre. The reason that this was a 4th conjugation verb is that it was not derived from sĭgnāre by the addition of a prefix like the other verbs we’ve seen, but rather, it was derived from the adjective īnsĭgnis ‘conspicuous, distinguished, famous, etc.’ (i.e. “marked, remarkable”), which is also derived from the root sĭgn‑.

Latin īnsignis (īn‑+‑sign‑+‑is) is both the masculine/feminine nominative singular wordform of this third declension Latin adjective. Its neuter nominative singular form is īnsigne. From this form of the adjective, Latin derived the third declension neuter ‘pure’ i-stem noun (nom. sg.) īnsigne ‘coat of arms, badge’. The nominative plural of this noun was īnsignĭa, a word that has made it into both English and Spanish, twice in each language, as doublets: Eng. ensign and insignia and Sp. enseña and insignia. These words are at best partial friends, if not fully false friends.

English ensign [ˈɛn.sən] is a 14th century borrowing from Old French enseigne, where the word was patrimonial. It can translate into Spanish as the patrimonial enseña when it refers to ‘a flag, especially a military or naval one indicating nationality’ (COED, also known as bandera or pabellón in Spanish. When Eng. ensign refers to a military rank, namely ‘the lowest rank of commissioned officer in the US and some other navies, above chief warrant officer and below lieutenant’ (COED), it translates as alférez (de fragata), a word of Arabic origin.

English insignia [ɪn.ˈsɪɡ.niə̯] is a 17th century learned word. It refers primarily to ‘a patch or other object that indicates a person’s official or military rank, or membership in a group or organization’ (Wikipedia). It can be used as a singular noun and as a plural noun. It seems at one point, English could use the form insigne as a singular form, but that use is now obsolete. Eng. insignia can be translated into Spanish as insignia [in.ˈsiɡ.ni̯a] (pl. insignias). Spanish insignia, however, has a broader meaning and can translate also as badge, flag, banner, or medal, all emblematic symbols of organizations of different types.

Finally, we should mention that Spanish also has the learned, fancy adjective insigne , which translates into English as ‘distinguished, eminent, famous, notable’, e.g. Mi abuelo es un insigne escultor ‘My grandfather is a famous sculptor’. It is a 15th century borrowing from the neuter form of the already mentioned Latin adjective īnsĭgnis.

Sp. reseñar and resignar and Eng. resign

The third patrimonial Spanish verb based on Lat. ‑sĭgnāre is reseñar ‘to review, to describe, to make a sketch, outline’. This verb is used, for example, for the writing of reviews of books found in academic journals or of films in newspapers or Web sites. The associated noun is reseña, which actually appeared in the DLE before the verb reseñar, both in the first half of the 19th century. The meanings of the noun reseña parallel those of the verb and thus it translates as review when it is about a book, summary or report’, when said of a meeting, for example, or else as description.

The verb reseñar comes ultimately from Lat. resĭgnāre, with the prefix re‑ ‘back, again’ attached to the verb sĭgnāre ‘to make a mark’. In Latin, this verb had originally meant to ‘take back or undo a mark’ or in other words ‘check off’, and from there ‘to unseal, open’ and, finally, ‘to annul, cancel, invalidate, rescind, cancel, give up’. But another major meaning of the Latin word at some point was ‘to write something down’ and it is from here came that the modern meanings of reseñar.

re‑ ‘back, etc.’ + sĭgnāre
‘to undo a mark’, ‘to write something down’, etc.

Additionally, Latin resĭgnāre has given us the learned cognate verbs Eng. resign [ɹɪ.ˈzaɪ̯n] and Sp. resignarse (reflexive). These verbs are not close friends, however. That is because their meanings differ somewhat, for Spanish only shares one of the two major meanings of English resign.

English resign has two main senses: ‘to give up a position’ and ‘to give up to fate’. The meaning ‘to give up a position’, can be seen as an extension of the ‘cancel, invalidate’ sense already mentioned for Lat. resĭgnāre and it was already present in English in the 14th century when it borrowed it from French resigner, a learned word in this language (a 13th c. borrowing from Latin). But this sense is not available for Spanish resignar. In Spanish to resign is dimitir or presentar la dimisión.

The other sense of English resign, ‘to give up to fate’, is always used with a reflexive pronoun, cf. to resign (oneself) ‘accept that something undesirable cannot be avoided’ (COED), as in I resigned myself to living in obscurity forever. This is the only possible sense of also reflexive Spanish resignarse. This sense of the English word resign is not recorded before the 18th century, so it must have come late, but its seeds can already be seen in the Latin sense ‘to give up’ and it may have come through French. (A semi-learned version of this verb, namely resinar, with consonant cluster simplification, is found Nebrija’s 15th century dictionary.)[1]

The nouns Sp. resignación and Eng. resignation, derived from the respective verbs we just saw, are also semi-false-friends. English resignation, like the verb resign, has two senses: ‘giving up a position’ and ‘giving up to fate’. As with the case of the verbs, the second sense translates as resignación in Spanish, but not the former one, which is rendered as dimisión (see above).

Sp. asignar and Eng. assign

Another pair of learned, cognate verbs in Spanish and English that were derived from the Latin verb sĭgnāre are Sp. asignar [a.siɡ.ˈnaɾ] ~ Eng. assign [ə.ˈsaɪ̯n], which are quite friendly cognates. They come from Lat. assĭgnāre, which was formed by the preposition/prefix ad‑ ‘to’ plus the verb sĭgnāre and meant something like ‘to mark out, to allot (by sign), to attribute’. This verb came into English in the early 14th century through French learned assigner, which borrowed it from Latin first. Sp. asignar is also a loanword and it is already attested in the 13th century. It may have been borrowed directly from Latin or, more likely, through French.

ad‑ ‘to’ + sĭgnāre
‘to mark out, to allot (by sign), to attribute’

There are a couple of nouns derived from the Latin verb that have also made it into English and Spanish. English has a derived noun assignment [ə.ˈsaɪ̯n.mənt], whose main meaning is ‘an assigned task’. It is a 14th century borrowing from Old French assignement (or assinnement), from Medieval Latin assignamentum (ad+sign+a+ment+um). (French does not have a reflex of this noun any longer, although it does have a verb assigner.)

The word assignment does not have a Spanish cognate. The meaning ‘assigned task’ in Spanish is expressed typically by the noun tarea, if it’s a small assignment, or misión, if it is a large one. When assignment means just ‘the act of assigning’, as opposed to ‘something that has been assigned’, then Spanish can use the noun asignación.

The Spanish noun asignación is a cognate of the rare English learned noun (15th c.) assignation [ˌæ.sɪɡ.ˈneɪ̯.ʃən], which may refer to ‘the act of assigning’, but also to ‘a secret arrangement to meet’, typically between lovers (Sp. cita a escondidas or cita de amantes). The most common meaning of Sp. asignación, however, is ‘allocation of something’, usually a ‘money allowance’. These learned words come from the Latin noun stem assĭgnātiōn‑ (nom. assĭgnātiō, acc. assĭgnātiōnem), which was formed from the past participle stem (assĭgnāt‑) of the verb assĭgnāre and the noun-forming suffix ‑iōn‑ that we have seen so often (cf. ad+sĭgn+ā+t+iōn+em).

Spanish has another noun derived from the verb asignar, namely asignatura. It means primarily ‘school subject’, a particular area of study that is taught formally in a class, such as Calculus or Economics. This noun does not have an English cognate. It is a learned loanword from Latin assignātūra, derived from the past-participle stem assĭgnāt‑ of the verb assĭgnāre and the noun-forming suffix ‑ūr‑ and the feminine nominative inflexional ending ‑a (cf. signature above). The suffix ‑ūr‑ was one of the suffixes used to derive nouns from Latin verbs, which has resulted in a number of nouns in ‑ure in English and in ‑ura in Spanish (cf. Eng. signature). Common phrases involving the word asignatura in an academic environment are the following: asignatura obligatoria ‘required course’, asignatura optativa ‘optional subject, elective course’, and asignatura pendiente ‘remaining subject, do-over subject’, which can also mean, by extension, ‘unfinished business, unresolved matter’.

Sp. consignar and Eng. consign

The verbs Sp. consignar [kon.siɡ.ˈnaɾ] ~ Eng. consign [kən.ˈsaɪ̯n] are also cognates derived from sĭgnāre, neither one of which is very common in its language. They are also only partial friends. They go back to Lat. consĭgnāre ‘to (fix a) seal; to register (put on record), etc.’, which was formed from the prefix com‑ ‘with’, plus the verb sĭgnāre ‘to mark with a sign’.

con‑ ‘with’ + sĭgnāre
‘to (fix a) seal; to register (put on record), etc.’

Both are learned words. Both words came either directly from Latin or from a learned French consigner, English consign is first attested in the 15th century and Spanish consignar in the 16th century. When English borrowed this word, it had the same meaning as French consigner, namely ‘to ratify by a sign or seal’. The Modern English verb consign has three major, related senses:

(1)  ‘to deliver to someone’s custody’ (COED)
(2)  ‘to send (goods) by a public carrier’ (COED) (added in the 17th c. and now obsolete)
(3)  ‘to set aside for some purpose’, as in a consignment store, or to get rid of.

Spanish consignar has 8 senses according to Larousse, 5 according to VOX, and 10 according to DLE, all of them quite specialized and rare and not likely to be known by most speakers of the language. There is overlap between the words in the two languages so, for instance, Spanish has senses that are the same as, or similar to, all the three senses of English consign mentioned above.

There are also a few nouns related to the verbs just mentioned. As we just saw in sense (3) above, English has a noun consignment [kən.ˈsaɪ̯n.mənt] to refer to either to the act of consigning or to the goods consigned. This noun was formed in English out of the verb consign and the Latinate suffix ‑ment, which creates nouns from verbs.

Not surprisingly, because of its origin, Spanish does not have a cognate of this noun. Things that are consigned in the sense of being sent by carrier are known as a remesa or envío, e.g. Yesterday they sent a consignment of books ‘Enviaron una remesa/envío de libros ayer’. Things that are consigned in the sense of being set aside, may be known in some contexts and in some dialects as consignación, a related word formed from the verb consignar and the suffix ‑ción (from Lat. ‑t‑iōn‑).

Spanish also has a noun consigna, which is more common than, but very different in meaning from, the verb consignar. Actually, consigna can have four rather different meanings:

(1)  (in Spain) the check-room at a train station (left-luggage office)
(2)  a secret sign, password, watchword
(3)  a political slogan
(4)  order or instruction given to subordinates

Actually, sense (2) is rare. A more common word for password in Spanish than consigna is yet another seña word, namely contraseña, probably the most common one for this meaning. English too used to have a cognate noun countersign, now obsolete, with the same meaning Sp. contraseña originally had, namely ‘a signal or password given in reply to a soldier on guard’ (COED). The source of this meaning has to do with a military practice in which in order for two soldiers to known that they were on the same side, one soldier gave a certain sign or seña and the other soldier would give the countersign or contraseña.

Nowadays contraseña in Spanish is the main word used for ‘password’ as used on the Internet, for instance (even though there is no seña for it to go with). In English, countersign is now just used as a verb, meaning ‘to add a signature to (a document already signed by another person)’ (COED) (cf. Sp. refrendar).

Sp. persignarse

Spanish has one more verb based on Lat. sĭgnāre, namely the reflexive persignarse ‘to cross oneself’, ‘to make the sign of the cross’.[2] This verb is a 17th century borrowing from Latin. In Latin persĭgnāre meant ‘to note down, record’. It was formed from the prefix per‑ ‘through, etc.’ and the verb sĭgnāre ‘to make a mark’.

per‑ ‘through’ + sĭgnāre
‘to note down, record’

The meaning of Spanish persignarse does not agree the original meaning of the Latin word, so it must have been a meaning that the word acquired in Church Latin. It refers to an act of self-blessing by making ‘the sign of the cross in front of one’s chest as a sign of Christian reverence or to invoke divine protection’ (COED). As we saw earlier, an early word for this meaning was signarse, without the prefix per‑, though that word is now obsolete.

In the Catholic Christian tradition, centered in Rome, one crosses oneself by pointing with one’s right hand to one’s forehead, then one’s chest, then one’s left shoulder, and finally one’s right shoulder, all while reciting the words In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (in Spanish: En el nombre del padre, del hijo y del espíritu santo). In the Orthodox Christian tradition, centered in Constantinople until its fall in 1453, the order of the last two steps is reversed. Some Protestant Christian traditions, such as Lutherans and Methodists, also use this symbolism.

Sp. significar and Eng. signify

Finally, there is one more very important set of cognate words of the sign word family, the set of lexemes that contain the Latin sĭgn‑ root, namely the compounds Sp. significar and Eng. signify. Both of these verbs are learned loanwords that come ultimately from Lat. sĭgnĭfĭcāre ‘to signify, indicate, show’ (sĭgn+ĭ+fĭc+ā+re).

These words contain the cognate Latinate pseudo-suffixes Sp. -ficar and Eng. ‑fy (cf. Part II, Chapter 37). This Latin suffix comes from the verb facĕre ‘to make/do’, the source of Sp. hacer, and thus qualifies as a suffixoid in Latin (cf. Chapter 5, §5.11).

These two words are vaguely related in meaning, but they are rather false friends, since they are not used the same way. Spanish significar means ‘to mean’, plain and simple, e.g. ¿Qué significa esto? ‘What does this mean?’ (lit. ‘What does this signify?’) (cf. Part I, Chapter 6). Eng. signify, on the other hand, is a formal word that means ‘to represent, mean, or be a sign of something’ (DOCE). Although the literal meanings are similar, Eng. signify is rarely translated by Sp. significar. More likely translations would be indicar, ser indicio de, mostrar, expresar, señalar, or simbolizar. Likewise, Sp. significar never translates into English as signify, but rather primarily as to mean, but also to represent, to involve, and to express.

The noun associated with and derived from the verb significar in Spanish is significado ‘meaning’. Of course, significado was originally the past participle of the verb significar, as in ¿Qué ha significado esto para ti? ‘What has this meant to you?’. English does have a cognate of Spanish significado, namely the noun significate [sɪɡ.ˈnɪ.fɪ.kǝt], which is first attested in the 15th century, but which is very rare. One dictionary gives the following meaning for this noun: ‘that which is signified or symbolized’ (SOED). Both of these nouns are derived from the past participle of Lat. sĭgnĭficāre, namely sĭgnĭficātus

There is an adjective in Spanish that is derived from the verb significar, namely significativo, which translates as meaningful or significant, even though English also has a fancy adjective significative, with pretty much the same meaning, but which is much rarer. These two cognates come from the Latin adjective signĭfĭcātīvus ‘denoting, signifying, significative’, formed with the Latin suffix ‑īv‑, which attached itself to past participle stems of verbs (sign+ĭ+fĭc+ā+t+īv+us).

As we just saw, one of the possible translations of Sp. significativo is Eng. significant. This last word is also a derivate of the verb sĭgnĭficāre. It comes from this verb’s present participle, whose stem was signĭfĭcant‑ (nom. signĭfĭcans, acc. signĭfĭcantem). Present participles such as this one were used as adjectives in Latin, but were also sometimes nominalized (turned into nouns). Eng. significant means ‘extensive or important enough to merit attention’ (COED). Besides significativo, this English adjective significant can translate into Spanish as importante, trascendente, or considerable, e.g. Tuve que pagar una cantidad considerable de dinero por ese arreglo ‘I had to pay a significant amount of money for that repair job’. Spanish does have a cognate adjective significante, but this is merely a technical term in linguistics, as we saw in Chapter 6, §6.1. Its English equivalent is signifier. Both Sp. significante and Eng. signifier are calques of Fr. signifiant, a technical coinage by Ferdinand de Saussure.

[a] Modern French designer /de.zi.ˈɲe/ has three main senses: (1) (to show ) ‘to point out, to indicate’, (2) (choose) ‘to choose, single out’, and (3) (name) ‘to appoint, nominate’.

Intimate intimacy

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 53, "Intimate intimacy", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: A...