Sunday, November 5, 2017

Revenge, vengeance, and vindication

[This entry consists of Chapter 48 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Figure: Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, c. 1805–1808[i]

Sp. venganza and Eng. vengeance

Sp. venganza /ben.ˈɡan.θa/ and Eng. vengeance /ˈvɛn.ʤəns/ are cognates from the point of view of a language learner. They look alike in the spelling, even if their pronunciations are quite different, and they are also quite ‘good friends’, since they have very close meanings.

Most dictionaries define vengeance as having a single meaning, namely ‘punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong’ (COED). The same meaning applies to the Spanish word venganza. Additionally, the English word has a somewhat different meaning in the idiomatic expression with a vengeance ‘with great intensity’, which does not translate into Spanish. If you look for vengeance in an English-Spanish dictionary, you are told it means venganza in Spanish, and nothing else. However, if you look for venganza in a Spanish-English dictionary, you are told it means either vengeance or revenge. Clearly, then, there is no one-to-one relationship between the two words, since the Spanish word can have two possible English translations. English also uses the expression to take vengeance, though it is not very common nowadays. Spanish does not use an equivalent expression with venganza to translate this meaning, but rather uses the verb vengarse (see below).

Eng. vengeance is a 12th century loanword from Old French vengeance (among other spellings), with pretty much the same meaning it has today (‘revenge, retribution’). The French word is obviously a patrimonial word, one that was first attested in the 11th century. It is still vengeance in Modern French, pronounced [vɑ̃.ˈʒɑ̃s]. Sp. venganza is first attested in the 13th century, spelled vengança. Other Romance languages have cognates of these words, such as Italian vengianza and Portuguese vinganza.

Both Fr. vengeance and Sp. venganza would seem to be patrimonial words and everything points out to their being derived from a Latin *vĭndĭcāntĭa, which would have been the stem vĭndĭc‑ of the verb vindicāre  ‘to claim, avenge, punish’ and the Latin suffix ‑antĭa, which consists of the present participle morpheme ‑ant‑ of first conjugation verbs (‑a‑nt‑) and the suffix ‑ĭa that formed first declension abstract nouns (ĭ‑a).[1] However, as the star before the word *vĭndĭcāntĭa indicates, this word is not attested in Latin, so it must have been created in the Late Latin or early Romance period, or else it was created in one of the Romance languages and then borrowed by the other ones.

Eng. avenge & Sp. vengar

There are also verbs in these languages that are related to the nouns Eng. vengeance and Sp. venganza. They are Eng. avenge /ə.ˈvɛnʤ/ and Sp. vengar /ben.ˈɡaɾ/. The initial a‑ in the English word makes it less obvious that the two words are related, but they do derive from the same Latin source. Both verbs go back to the Latin verb vindicāre that we just mentioned, meaning ‘to claim, avenge, punish’. Eng. avenge came from Old French avengier, which was a variant of the patrimonial verb vengier, derived from Lat. vindicāre, one that contains the prefix a‑ ‘to’ (from Latin ad‑).

Sp. vengar is a patrimonial word that comes from the same Latin source. The sound changes that we encounter are just the expected ones:


First the short ĭ became e in Spanish as it always did. The intervocalic ‑c‑ became voiced and changed to ‑g‑. The second i was in intertonic position, that is it was an unstressed vowel in word medial position and thus it was lost. Then, the three consonant cluster ‑ndg‑ was simplified to ‑ng‑. Finally, the vowel ‑e was lost in word-final position, as it always was in infinitives. These are all changes that are explained in Chapter 10 of Part I.

Eng. avenge is a rather literary word. It is a transitive verb whose meaning is either ‘inflict harm in return for (an injury or wrong)’ (COED), as in They avenged her sister’s death, or ‘inflict retribution on behalf of (a wronged person)’ (COED), as in They avenged their sister. This verb is equivalent to Spanish vengar, as in Vengaron la muerte de su hermana or Vengaron a su hermana, sentences that are equivalent to the English sentences we just saw.

Much more common than transitive vengar in Spanish is reflexive—and thus intransitive—Sp. vengarse (de/en alguien) (por algo) ‘to take revenge (on someone) (for something)’. English avenge has been used reflexively as well, namely as avenge oneself (on somebody) (for something), e.g. He avenged himself on his enemy, but that use is rare today. Compare this English sentence with the Spanish equivalent Se vengó de su enemigo, which is very normal Spanish. English prefers to use take revenge rather than avenge for this meaning: to take revenge (on somebody) (for something). As we saw earlier, to take vengeance is also a possibility, though a less common one. There are also two other Spanish expressions that can translate Eng. take revenge, namely desquitarse and tomarse la revancha, which we will look at below.

Eng. revenge (verb and noun) and Sp. revancha

Eng. revenge /ɹɪ.ˈvɛnʤ/ was originally a verb, first attested in the late 1300’s, and it can still be used as a verb, though this use is quite rare. The verb comes from the Old French verb revengier, variant of revenchier ‘take revenge, avenge’, cf. Modern French revancher /ʀə.vɑ̃.ˈʃe/, which is archaic or dialectal, and has been replaced by venger. O.Fr. revengier was formed, in French, with the intensive prefix re‑ added to the verb vengier ‘take revenge’ that we just saw.

Much more common than the verb revenge in English is the identical noun revenge, which is commonly used in the phrase to take revenge, as we saw (Sp. vengarse). This noun, which appeared in the mid-1500’s, is either back-formed and converted from the verb or else it is a loan from the French noun revenge, which is now obsolete in French, having been replaced by the Old French variant revenche, which has made it into Modern French as revanche. This French noun is derived from the verb revancher, the variant of revengier that English revenge comes from.

Fr. revanche can translate as revenge when speaking of enemies, but in the context of games and sports it means something more like ‘chance to get even’, ‘rematch’, or ‘return game’. It is with this sense that Spanish borrowed this noun from French, as revancha, a word that is used only in the context of sports and games of all sorts more generally. Sp. revancha has been common in Spanish since at least the mid-19th century. The word revanche has also been borrowed into English, in the mid-19th century, though it is quite rare and its meaning is quite different. It means primarily ‘a usually political policy designed to recover lost territory or status’ (MWC).

Latin vindicāre

Let us look now at the Latin word vindicāre before looking at some learned words that are derived from it in English and Spanish. As we saw earlier, the verb vindicāre is a first conjugation Latin verb whose principal parts are (present tense) vindicō, (present infinitive) vindicāre, (perfect active) vindicāvī, and (supine and passive participle) vindicātum.

This verb was sometimes written vendicāre, with an e, presumably because of a false etymological connection with the word vēnum ‘something for sale, something to sell’, so that the word vendicāre could be used with the meaning ‘to call or claim as one’s own by sale’. The original meaning, at least in the classical period, of vindicāre was ‘to lay legal claim to a thing, whether as one’s own property or for its restoration to a free condition’, a meaning that makes sense in the context of Roman culture. Later on, additional meanings were added to this word, in particular: ‘to appropriate a thing’, ‘to set free, to free, emancipate’, ‘to deliver, liberate, protect, defend’, and in the context of a wrong having been perpetrated, ‘to avenge, revenge, punish’ and ‘to take vengeance on any one; make compensation for’ (L&S). This latter meaning is, of course, the main one that was passed on to the descendants of this verb in the daughter languages.

This verb’s stem was originally a compound, though the exact nature of the compound is a bit confused. The verb seems to be related to the noun vindex (genitive: vindicis, root: vindic‑), that meant ‘defender, protector, avenger’. Supposedly, the root vindic‑ of both the noun and the verb was originally a compound consisting of vim, accusative form of the noun vīs, and the root dic‑. The noun vīs meant ‘force, power, strength’, but also ‘violence’ and, figuratively, ‘assault’. It was an irregular third conjugation noun with a shortened stem in the singular (the plural stem was vīr‑). Other words that contain this root are the verb vĭŏlāre, source of Eng. violate and Sp. violar, and the adjective vĭŏlentus, source of Eng. violent and Sp. violento/a.[2]

As for the second part of the compound, there are conflicting claims as to the source of the root dic‑. According to some, it is the verb dicāre ‘to dedicate, consecrate, devote’, a root that goes back to Proto-Indo-European *deyḱ-s an agentive form of the verb root *deyḱ- ‘to point out, show’. According to others, the dic‑ in  vindicāre comes from the verb dīcĕre ‘to say, speak, declare, etc.’, source of Sp. decir ‘to say, tell’. This root goes back to Proto-Indo-European *déyḱti ‘to show, point out’, which is derived ultimately from the same root *deyḱ‑ that dicāre comes from. The root of the latter verb was dīc‑, with long ī, but vowel length was not written in Latin. (The present form was written identically in Latin, namely DICO, though one was dīco, with a long ī, whereas the other one presumably had a short ĭ.) The OED supports the theory that the root dic‑ in vindicāre comes from dīcĕre, whereas other sources claim that the source was dicāre.

Both of these verbs produced additional verbs by prefixation.[3] Additionally, both of them produced additional verbs by compounding. One of them was vindicāre, as we have seen. Another verb derived from dicāre by composition is iūdicāre, formed with the noun iūs ‘law, right’, which meant ‘to examine judicially, judge, be a judge, pass judgment, decide’. This is the source of Eng. judge ~ Sp. juzgar. Verbs derived from Lat. dīcĕre by compounding include benedīcĕre ‘speak well of someone, commend’ and, in Church Latin, ‘to bless’ (cf. Sp. bendecir ‘to bless’).[4]

Learned words derived from Lat. vindicāre

Lat. vindicāre has been borrowed into English and Spanish as the learned words Eng. vindicate /ˈvɪn.dɪ.keɪ̯t/ and Sp. vindicar /bin.d̪i.ˈkaɾ/. These two verbs are only partial friends, however, since they are not used in exactly the same way. Eng. vindicate appears first in the early 17th century with the meaning ‘to avenge or revenge’, a meaning that is now obsolete. Later it came to have some of the secondary meanings of Lat. vindicāre, such as ‘to claim, stake a claim, to set free, liberate’. In Modern English, vindicate has come to mean ‘[to] clear of blame or suspicion’ and ‘[to] show to be right or justified’ (COED).

Sp. vindicar is a fancy word, already attested in writing in the mid-15th century. It has come to mean ‘to defend, usually in writing, the good name of a person unjustly accused’, as in Ese libro vindica la figura del conde-duque de Olivares como estadista de mérito ‘That book vindicates the person of the Count-Duke de Olivares as meritorious statesman’ (Clave). In legal terminology, it can mean ‘to recover something that belongs to you’, a meaning that is much less common. Even less common is the sense of ‘avenge’ with which the word has also been used (for the DLE, the ‘avenge’ sense is primary, but other dictionaries, such as Clave, give it as the third one).

Related to and derived from these two cognate verbs are the adjectives Eng. vindicated ~ Sp. vindicado/a. Both of them are derived from the past participles of the respective verbs and both of them mean primarily ‘exonerated’ or ‘exculpated’.

Related to these verbs are the rare nouns Eng. vindication /vɪn.dɪ.ˈkeɪ̯.ʃən/ and Sp. vindicación. The main meaning of both of these words is ‘exoneration’ or ‘exculpation’. The sense ‘justification’ of Eng. vindication is best translated as justificación in Spanish, however.

English also has the adjective vindictive, which means ‘having or showing a strong or unreasoning desire for revenge’. According to some sources, this adjective was formed in English in the 17th century out of the Latin noun vindicta ‘punishment, vengeance’ and the English Latinate suffix ‑ive. It seems more likely that it was a loanword or perhaps a calque of Fr. vindicatif (fem. vindicative), already found in French in the early 15th century, an adjective that was derived, in French, from the Latin verb vindicāre. The Spanish equivalent is vengativo, which is derived from the patrimonial verb vengar, but which is probably also a calque of the French word we just saw. The native English synonym of vindictive is vengeful, derived in the late 16th century from the verb venge, an obsolete variant of avenge.

Additionally, Spanish has a verb reivindicar, which is fancy, but also not uncommon. It means ‘to demand’ (in legal proceedings), ‘to claim a right’ (synonymous of reclamar), ‘to restore’ (as in reputation), and ‘to claim responsibility for’ (as in an attack or assault). The source of this word is a bit obscure. Corominas claims that the source is the Latin phrase rei vindicatio ‘vindication of a thing’ (rei ‘of a thing’ is the genitive case wordform of the noun res ‘thing’), from which the verb reivindicar would have been derived in Spanish. This seems extremely unlikely, however, especially since French has a verb revendiquer /ʀə.vɑ̃.di.ˈke/ (without the i) with the exact same meaning as Sp. reivindicar, namely ‘to claim, lay claim to; to demand; to claim responsibility for or authorship of; to proclaim’. It seems more likely that the French verb came first, as a version of the adapted loanword vendiquer (from Lat. vindicāre) with the reinforcement of the prefix re‑. The first mention of this French verb is from the late 14th century, as reivendiquier. The version reivendiquer is from the mid-17th century. To complicate things, the DLE has an entry for a verb revindicar which is a synonym of vindicar since it means ‘to defend an offended or injured party’. This verb is extremely rare, assuming it is anything but a nonce word of Spanish.

Other semantically related words

Finally, we mentioned earlier that the Spanish verb desquitarse can be used as a translation or equivalent of English to take revenge. Actually, it means something more like to get even. This reflexive use is much more common than the non-reflexive transitive desquitar that means ‘to compensate someone for a loss or setback’. Thus, desquitarse means, quite literally, ‘to compensate oneself for a loss or setback by getting back at the one responsible for said loss or setback’. The major synonyms of desquitarse are vengarse, resarcirse, tomar el desquite, and tomar la revancha.

The verb desquitar first appears in the written record in the late 1600’s. It is derived from the verb quitar. This verb originally meant ‘to take away an obligation or burden’, then ‘to free from an oppressor’, and eventually ‘to remove, take off, take away, etc.’, the meanings it has today. The verb desquitar is obviously derived from quitar, in Spanish, by the addition of the prefix des‑. This prefix typically either negates the meaning of the verb, as in desconfiar ‘to mistrust’ (from confiar ‘to trust’) or else inverts the meaning of a verb it attaches itself to, as in desatar ‘to untie’ (from atar ‘to tie’). Here, however, it would seem to be acting as an intensifier, equivalent of the Latin prefix re‑ or the English adverbial back (as in to take back).

Semantically related to the words we have seen derived from Lat. vindicāre is the English expression to get even (with somebody). Its meaning is ‘to cause somebody the same amount of trouble or harm as they have caused you’ (OALD). This expression can translate into Spanish as vengarse, desquitarse, or ajustar cuentas. Other synonymous English expressions are to settle a score and to even out a score

[1] At face value, this ‑ĭa ending is really the feminine form of the suffix ‑ĭus, but it would also seem to be a calque of the Ancient Greek suffixes ‑ία (-ía) and -εια (-eia) that form feminine abstract nouns out of adjectives.

[2] The verb vĭŏlāre meant ‘to treat with violence (corporeally, and, more freq., mentally), to injure, dishonor, outrage, violate’ (L&S) and the adjective vĭŏlentus meant ‘forcible, violent, vehement, impetuous, boisterous’. The stem of these words would seem to be vĭŏl‑, which may have been a diminutive of vīs. The suffix ‑ent‑ formed first and second declension adjectives, with the proper inflections, primarily from noun stems. This suffix was often extended and had the variants ‑olentus, ‑ilentus, and ‑ulentus. Derived from the verb vĭŏlāre was the noun vĭŏlāre.

[3] There were several Latin verbs that seem to be derived from dicāre by prefixation, namely abdicāre, dēdicāre, indicāre, and praedicāre, sources of the cognates Eng. abdicate ~ Sp. abdicar, Eng. dedicate ~ Sp. dedicar, Eng. indicate ~ Sp. indicar, and Eng. predicate ~ Sp. predicar. There are also some verbs that seem to be derived from dīcĕre by prefixation, such as Latin abdīcere ‘to be against’, addīcĕre ‘to be propitious to, favor’ (source of Eng. addict ~ Sp. adicto), condīcĕre ‘to talk something over together’, contrādīcĕre, source of Eng. contradict ~ Sp. contradecir, ēdīcĕre ‘to declare, publish’ (cf. Eng. edict ~ Sp. edicto), indīcere ‘to declare publicly, etc.’, interdīcĕre ‘to prohibit, forbid, etc.’ (cf. Eng. interdict),  praedīcĕre ‘to say beforehand’, source of Eng. predict and Sp. predecir, prōdīcĕre ‘to give notice, etc.’, superdīcĕre ‘to add, say in addition’.

[4] Other compounds with dīcĕre are maledīcĕre ‘to slander, speak ill, curse’ (cf. Sp. maldecir ‘to curse, swear’), and valedīcĕre ‘to say farewell, to give a valediction’ (cf. Eng. valediction ‘alocución de despedida’, valedictorian)

[i] Painting in the Court of Assize in Toulouse's Courthouse (Palace of Justice), the former home of the regional Parliament (Parlement). The central image: Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prudhon. Source:

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