Thursday, November 16, 2017

The roots VERT- & VERS-, Part 6: Lat. revert- and invert-

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Diversión & diversion: the roots VERT- & VERS-," Chapter 8 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


Lat. revert- and revers-


The next pair of cognates that come from a verb derived from Lat. vĕrtĕre is Eng. revert and Sp. revertir and reverter, which are not exactly useful cognates, that is, ‘good friends’. Latin had two equivalent (synonymous) and related verbs from which these verbs arose, both of which meant ‘to return, turn back, turn around’. One was the third conjugation revĕrtĕre, derived from the basic verb vĕrtĕre with the prefix re‑ ‘back; again’. Its principal parts were present revĕrtō, present infinitive revĕrtĕre, perfect revĕrtī, and passive participle revĕrsus. The other was a third conjugation deponent version of this verb, revĕrtī, whose principal parts were present revĕrtor, present infinitive revĕrtī, and perfect active revĕrsus sum (for deponent verbs, see Part I, Chapter 8, §8.4.3.2).

English intransitive revert [ɹɪ.ˈvɜɹt], which is always followed by the preposition to, means primarily ‘to return to a former condition, practice, subject, or belief’ (AHD), as in past’, as in Things reverted to normal (= Things went back to normal). This sense translates into Spanish with volver or regresar, both of which mean ‘to go back’, e.g. Sp. Las cosas volvieron/regresaron a la normalidad. In legal terminology, when speaking of money or property, Eng. revert also means ‘to return to the former owner or to the former owner’s heirs’ (AHD), as in After he died, the estate reverted to his brother (= The estate went back to his brother). This sense of revert can be translated into Spanish with the cognate verb revertir (conjugated like sentir), cf. Cuando murió, el patrimonio revirtió a su hermano. In other words, Eng. revert and Sp. revertir are only partial friends.

Eng. revert is a 13th century borrowing from Old French revertir, which seems to have come from a Vulgar Latin *revertire, a compromise variant of the two Latin verbs we just mentioned. French does not have this verb anymore and the way Eng. revert is translated by other verbs such as retourner, revenir, or reprendre, depending on the context.

Spanish revertir probably came from the same Vulgar Latin variant *revertire of Latin revĕrtĕre (the DLE and other dictionaries say that it comes from the Latin revĕrtī). As we saw, it shares with Eng. revert the legal sense just mentioned, but as to the other sense, namely ‘to go back to a previous state or condition’, matters are not so clear. Some dictionaries, such as the Academy’s DLE, claim that Sp. revertir also has that sense.[1] But bilingual dictionaries agree that that that sense of Eng. revert is best translated as volver or even regresar.

Spanish revertir has another sense that English revert does not have, namely ‘to have an impact for someone’, typically having to do with monetary benefits or charges. This last sense or revertir is rather fancy and rare, however. It is typically followed by the preposition en and is synonymous with repercutir, e.g. Estas inversiones revertirán en beneficio nuestro ‘These investments will have a positive impact on our benefits’.

As we have seen, the passive participle of Lat. revĕrtĕre was revĕrsus, which most basically meant ‘returned’. Both this word and other Latin words derived from the stem revĕrs‑ have made it into English and Spanish. In English, we find reverse, which can be a verb, an adjective, or a noun. The adjective and the noun come ultimately from the Latin passive participle reversus. The adjective reverse came first, around 1300, from Old French revers ‘reverse, cross, opposite’, which itself was borrowed from Latin reversus a bit earlier in the 13th century. Its main meaning is ‘going in or turned towards the opposite direction’ (COED), e.g. reverse gear (Sp. marcha atrás). The main Spanish equivalent of this adjective is  contrario and inverso, e.g. Eng. reverse order and Sp. orden inverso.

The noun reverse, meaning ‘opposite, contrary’, came in the mid-14th century, probably derived from the Old French noun revers, with the same meaning, which eventually goes back to the same Latin passive participle. Actually, this noun has different senses. One of them is ‘a complete change of direction or action’ (COED). Another sense of this noun is an ellipsis of the phrase reverse gear, as in I put it into reverse (gear), cf. Sp. Lo puse (en) marcha atrás, or of the phrase reverse order, as in in reverse, cf. Sp. a la inversa, al revés. Yet another sense of this noun is ‘a change in fortune from better to worse; a setback’ (AHD), as in the sentence She suffered financial reverses, cf. Sp. revés.

The verb reverse, on the other hand, came in the early 14th century from Old French reverser ‘to reverse, turn around; roll, turn up’, which itself had borrowed it in the 12th century from Late Latin revĕrsāre ‘to turn about, turn back’, a frequentative version of Latin revĕrtĕre (frequentative Latin verbs were derived from the passive participle stem, cf. Part I, Chapter 8, §8.38.4.3.6). At first it was only a transitive verb meaning ‘to change, etc.’, but in the 15th century it came to also have an intransitive sense, something like ‘to go backwards’. Today it is most a transitive verb, one of whose meanings is ‘to change something, such as a decision, judgment, or process so that it is the opposite of what it was before’, as in The judge reversed the decision (DOCE). Another transitive sense is ‘to change around the usual order of the parts of something, or the usual things two people do’, as in the collocations reverse roles and reverse positions (DOCE). In Spanish, for the sense ‘reverse positions or roles’ we use invertir and for ‘reverse a decision’ we use revocar. In British English, reverse the car is equivalent to put the car into reverse in American English. Finally, speaking of causing something to be the opposite of what it was, as in reverse climate change, one may use the same words as for moving backwards, such as dar marcha atrás al cambio climático, or other verbs such as cancelar.

Derived from Lat. revĕrsus, Spanish has the noun reverso ‘reverse, back (side)’, as in el reverso de la moneda/medalla, lit. ‘the back (side) of the coin/medal’ (figuratively, this can be an idiomatic phrase that means ‘the exact opposite’). Additionally, Spanish has the already mentioned patrimonial (masculine) noun revés (pl. reveses), which is a polysemous word. It can also be used with the figurative sense ‘misfortune, setback, reverse’, as we mentioned earlier (synonym: contrariedad). The noun revés can also mean a slap with the back of the hand and, in tennis, a ‘backhand (stroke)’. This noun is also used to refer to the ‘back’ (not-front) side of things such as a cloth or document or the inside of an article of clothing, as in el revés de la camisa ‘the shirt’s in side’. This sense is found in the very common adverbial phrase al revés ‘the other/opposite/wrong way, backwards’, as in Se puso la camisa al revés ‘He put the shirt on backwards’, a meaning that can also be expressed with the variant del revés. The phrase al revés can also be used figuratively and then it means something like ‘the opposite’ or ‘the wrong way’, as in Es al revés de lo que dijiste ‘It’s the opposite of what you said’ or Me sale todo al revés ‘Everthing I do comes out wrong’.

From the passive participle stem revĕrs‑ of the verb revĕrtĕre, Latin formed a frequentative verb revĕrsāre in Late Latin which came to mean ‘to turn around’. In Spanish, this verb became revesar which is still used in some places with the meaning ‘to throw up, vomit’ (synonym: vomitar). Spanish also has a verb enrevesar, often used in the intransitive reflexive form, which is derived from the noun revés (en‑reves‑ar). It means ‘to complicate (a situation), stir up trouble, etc.’ Curiously, this verb is not found in the major dictionaries of Spanish. Its synonyms include complicar, enredar, and the colloquial embarullar and liar (Clave). What we do find in all dictionaries is the adjective enrevesado/a, which means ‘complicated, difficult, convoluted, etc.’.  This adjective would seem to be derived from the past participle of enrevesar but actually enrevesar may be a back formation of enrevesado, which would have been derived from the noun revés.

Finally, the Spanish verb rebosar ‘to overflow, brim over, etc.’ is a patrimonial verb that also descends from Late Latin revĕrsāre. It would seem that because of the unusual vowel change from e to o, the Academy did not realize at first what the origin of this verb was and allowed the verb to keep a non-etymological 〈b〉 in its spelling. The verb rebosar can be used literally, as in the sentence El embalse está a punto de rebosar ‘The dam is about to overflow’. Perhaps more often, however, it is used figuratively, as in El estadio rebosaba de gente ‘The stadium was full to bursting’ (OSD) and Juan rebosaba (de) alegría ‘Juan was brimming with joy’. This verb is most commonly accompanied by the nouns alegría ‘joy’, felicidad ‘happiness’, entusiasmo ‘enthusiasm’, optimismo ‘optimism’, and salud ‘health’. The English verb overfill would translate into Spanish with the phrase llenar hasta rebosar. Finally, we should mention that this verb should not be confused with the verb rebozar ‘to coat in egg, breacrumbs or batter’, which is homophonous with rebosar for most speakers of Spanish.

Lat. invert- and invers-


The remaining pairs of cognates are even less ‘friendly’ than the preceding ones, since their meanings diverge even more. The first one is Eng. invert and Sp. invertir, which come from Latin invĕrtĕre, whose literal meaning was ‘to turn upside down’, though it could have other derived figurative senses, such as ‘to pervert’ and ‘to change’. Both English and Spanish seem to have borrowed this verb directly from Latin in the 16th century.

The main meaning of English invert is ‘put upside down or in the opposite position, order, or arrangement’ (COED), just as in its Latin source invĕrtĕre. Spanish invertir, can also be used with the meaning ‘to turn upside down’ or ‘reverse order’, but perhaps the most common sense of this word in modern Spanish is ‘to invest’ (either time, money, or other resources), a very different meaning. Perhaps because of this, Spanish does not use invertir much for the ‘reverse’ sense, other than as a technical term, preferring to use phrases such as dar la vuelta. A person who invests money is known as inversor in Spanish, an investor.

Both Spanish and English have derived adjectives out of the respective regular past participles of these verbs, namely Eng. inverted and Sp. invertido. Spanish invertido, again, could have both meanings: ‘inverted’ (‘inside out, upside down, etc.’) as well as ‘invested’. Additionally, Spanish has developed a noun invertido which is used with the meaning of ‘homosexual’. This sense probably stems from the sense ‘to pervert’ of Latin invĕrtĕre mentioned earlier.

The past participle of Latin invĕrtĕre was invĕrsus (in+vĕrs+us), which has given us the cognate adjectives Eng. inverse and Sp. inverso/a. English inverse means primarily ‘opposite’ and it typically translates into Spanish as inverso, though as we saw earlier, used as a noun, inverso can also translate the English adjective reverse. Spanish uses the adjective inverso/a in a couple of expressions that do not translate with cognates, namely a la inversa ‘mirror-image, in reverse, the other way round, vice versa’ and en sentido inverso ‘in the opposite direction’.

As usual, Latin could derive a noun from the passive participle stem verb invĕrtĕre by means of the suffix, ‑iōn‑, to name the action or the result of the action and, as always, this suffix was attached to the verb’s past participle stem, in this case invĕrs‑. From this noun, we get the cognates Eng. inversion and Sp. inversión. Predictably, English inversion means primarily ‘the action of inverting or the state of being inverted’ (COED) and Spanish inversión means either that or ‘investment’, which is probably its primary meaning, just as in the case of the verb.

One wonders how Spanish invertir and inversión acquired their current ‘investment’ meaning, since it did not have that meaning in Latin. Related to this is the question of how English invest and investment come to have the ‘financial’ meaning that Spanish invertir and inversión have. Let us start first with the latter question. The English verb invest comes from Latin investīre (investĭo, investīre, investivi, investitus), from in ‘in’ + vestire ‘to dress, clothe’ (cf. Sp. vestir), which meant ‘to clothe (in)’ and, figuratively, ‘to cover, surround’. English invest is a late 14th century loan, presumably from Latin, though it may have also helped that French had a cognate investir (14th c.), which had been earlier spelled envestir (13th c.). The original meaning of Eng. invest was ‘to clothe in the official robes of an office’ (OLED). The sense ‘commit (money or capital) in order to gain a financial return’ (AHD) of the verb invest first appears in the early 17th century and it seems to have been semantically calqued from the Italian cognate investire which had developed this sense already in the 14th century. French investir also has this financial sense, but it seems to have gotten it from English and not until the early 20th century. The descendant of this Latin verb in Spanish is the cognate investir, whose primary meaning today is a metaphorical one, namely ‘to confer/bestow an important rank or office’, one synonymous with conferir and otorgar, as in the sentence Le invistieron doctor honoris causa ‘they invested her with the degree of doctor, honoris causa’ (VOX).

English has a noun derived from the verb invest that maintains the original meaning, namely investiture, from Medievak Lat. investītūra, formed from the suffix ‑ūr‑ added to the past participle stem (in+vest+īt+ūr-a). This noun translates into Spanish by its cognate investidura, though the Spanish word is used with the sense of ‘presidential inauguration’ as well. For the financial sense of the verb invest, English derived the noun investment out of the verb invest with the Latinate noun-forming suffix ‑ment in order to name the act or result of investing. Eng. investment translates into Spanish as inversión (see above). Actually, the noun investment was created in English before the verb acquired the new meaning and it originally meant ‘the act of putting on vestments’.

Just as curious as this meaning change of the word invest in English, French and Italian is the development of the ‘invest’ meaning in the Spanish verb invertir, a meaning that seems to have no connection to the original meaning ‘to turn around’. The expected thing would have been for Spanish to follow suit with what its neighbors (Italian, French, English) had done and borrow the financial meaning to the verb investir, a semantic calque. Instead, Spanish added that sense to the similar-sounding verb invertir. One could come up with theories as to why invertir was given this new sense, such as that the purpose of investing is to obtain a turnaround or a change for the better in one’s finances. One suspects, however, that it was more likely a mistake that the first person who borrowed (calqued) the sense, giving it to the verb invertir instead of to the verb investir.



[1] This sense is definied in the DEL as: ‘dicho de una cosa: Volver al estado o condición que tuvo antes’ (‘said of a thing: to return to a state or condition it had before’).

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