The English verb to apply is a late 14th century loanword from Old French aplier, which meant ‘apply, use, attach’ (cf. Mod.Fr. semi-learned apliquer). Ultimately, this word comes from Lat. applĭcāre, formed with the prefix ad- ‘towards’ and plicāre ‘to fold’. The original meaning of Lat. applĭcāre was ‘to connect, place near, bring into contact, attach, join’. From this initial sense, other figurative senses developed later in Latin, such as ‘bring into practice’ or ‘come to land (said of a ship)’, both of which are quite different from the original meaning and which reflect figures of speech that are rather opaque to us today.
Eng. apply has four senses, according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED), some of which are different enough for us to wonder what they have in common and how a single word could mean such different things. These four senses are listed below, starting with the most common or salient one. We have also indicated when these meanings came into existence in the English word.
- make a formal request. put oneself forward as a candidate for a job. [19th century]
- be relevant. bring into operation or use [for some task]. [14th century; original meaning]
- put (a substance) on a surface. [15th century]
- (apply oneself) work hard. [14th century]
It is important to realize that this is not the only way to split the senses of the word apply, and other dictionaries do it differently. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) have six senses for this word and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (DOCE) has eight. OALD, for instance, splits COED’s sense no. 2 into three:
- BE RELEVANT: ‘to concern or relate to somebody/something’, as in That applies to you too.
- USE: ‘to use something or make something work in a particular situation’, as in apply sanctions or apply a technology
- PRESS HARD:, ‘to press on something hard with your hand, foot, etc. to make something work or have an effect on something’, as in apply the brakes or apply pressure
Spanish has a cognate verb aplicar, a learned word first attested in the 15th century. It may very well have come through French, just like its English cognate, for we know that French was using appliquer, a semi-learned version of O.Fr. applier (the source of Eng. apply) already in the late 13th century. Sp. aplicar has some of the senses that Eng. apply has but, crucially, it lacks sense number 1, the new one, which is an innovation in the English word. Spanish aplicar was never used with the sense of ‘applying to a job, a scholarship, a grant, etc.’, which is the novel (and today, the most common) sense of its English cognate. These are the main senses of Spanish aplicar found in the dictionary:
- applying something (liquid, cream, paint, etc.) over something else
- to put something into practice (rules, treatment, etc.)
- put a lot of effort into something (in Spanish, like in English, this sense is reflexive: aplicarse)
That is why these two cognates are said to be partially false friends or semi-false friends, since three of the senses are shared (though not the main sense of the English word), such as the sense ‘put (a substance) on a surface’ (COED). They are false friends if we think of the main sense of the English word, namely, ‘to make a formal request, usually in writing, for something such as a job, a place at college, university, etc.’ (OALD).
What we just said about the cognates Eng. apply ~ Sp. aplicar is applicable to the cognate nouns derived from them, namely Eng. application and Sp. aplicación. According to COED, the noun application has four senses that correspond to the four senses of the verb apply, the first one of which is ‘a formal request to an authority’. That is, crucially, a sense that Sp. aplicación lacks. In standard Spanish, that sense of Eng. application translates as solicitud.
Additionally, Eng. application has a fifth sense, used in computer science, namely ‘a program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose’, one which has no parallel in the verb apply. This sense is now often shortened to app, particularly in the realm of smartphone software. Not surprisingly, in recent years, Standard Spanish has borrowed this sense for the word aplicación, a semantic calque.
English and Spanish also have cognate adjectives derived from these verbs, namely Eng. applicable ~ Sp. applicable. Their meaning is ‘that can be applied; relevant or appropriate’. As you can see, these adjectives are only related to sense no. 2 of their respective verbs. Thus, one cannot say that a job is ‘applicable’, in the sense that one can apply for it, or that a cream is ‘applicable’, in the sense that it can be applied.
The senses of the verb apply, and in particular the first one, the 'job’ sense, are so different that we must wonder whether we are dealing here with several words that happen to look alike (homonyms) or with one single word that has different senses (a polysemous word). We happen to know that historically the latter is the case and that the ‘petition’ sense of these words is an innovation in English, which is why dictionaries treat apply as a single word. However, language learners, whether they are first or second language learners, do not know this fact and we must wonder how they categorize (in their minds) words that have such different and seemingly unrelated senses. Do they treat them as homonyms, that is, words that are obviously unrelated that happen to look alike, as in the case of the two nouns bark or the two nouns bank? Or do they treat them like other cases of polysemous words where the senses are similar or otherwise related? This is something that linguists, and particular cognitive linguists, are concerned about, since they care about how speakers categorize words, as opposed to what experts on the history of words have to say about them.
Note that not only the ‘petition’ sense but also some of the other senses were not found in the original Latin verb applĭcāre from which the English and Spanish verbs come from. Latin applĭcāre was formed out of the verb plĭcāre, which meant ‘to fold, bend’ and the prefix ad‑ ‘to’. (Lat. plĭcāre is the source of patrimonial llegar ‘to arrive’ and semi-learned Sp. plegar ‘to fold’.) The actual meaning of applĭcāre was, first of all, ‘to connect, place near, bring into contact, attach’, as when you fold something and bring the two sides together. Derived meanings were ‘to lean against’, ‘to draw near’, and the intransitive ‘to arrive, put in (enter port), land’. To these, we must add two figurative senses that the Latin verb applĭcāre had, namely ‘to adapt’ and ‘to devote to’. It is not hard to make a connection between these senses and senses 2-4 of the verb apply discussed earlier.
When we said that the petition sense of Eng. apply does not exist in Sp. aplicar, we should have said that it does not exist in most of the Spanish-speaking world, for as we saw in Chapter 2 (§2.8.3), some dialects of Spanish have borrowed the first sense of the English words apply and application, into the Spanish words aplicar and aplicación. (As we saw, this kind of borrowing of a sense for a word is known as semantic calque.) For some Spanish speakers, particularly those living in the US, Spanish aplicar indeed has acquired the sense of petitioning for things such as jobs or grants as a semantic calque from the English cognate. The vast majority of Spanish speakers, however, would not understand the word aplicar used with this sense and thus this sense is not part of Standard Spanish.
As we have already seen, in Standard Spanish, the petition sense of the verb apply is expressed with different word, such as solicitar, which is not a partial friend of its English cognate solicit and which is quite fancy. The best translation of Eng. application is the noun solicitud ‘request’. This noun is a cognate of Eng. solicitude, a very fancy word that means ‘care and concern for someone’s health, safety etc.’ (DOCE).
Finally, let us mention that there are numerous words in English and Spanish that contain the Latin root ‑plĭc‑, besides the already seen ones, such as the cognates such as Eng. accomplice ~ Sp. cómplice, Eng. complicate ~ Sp. complicar, Eng. deploy ~ Sp. desplegar, and Eng. complex ~ Sp. complejo (these last two words come from the related Latin verb plectĕre ‘to weave, braid, (en)twine’). English also has some words containing this root that do not have Spanish cognates, such as applicant ‘candidato, aspirante, solicitante’ and appliance ‘aparato, etc.’.
 The unprefixed verb plĭcāre could mean ‘to land’, said of a ship, a meaning that presumably arose because of the folding of the sails that takes place upon landing a ship, cf. Sp. llegar ‘to arrive’, a further extension of this sense.
 The cognate verbs Eng. solicit ~ Sp. solicitar come ultimately from Latin sollĭcĭtāre ‘to stir, disturb; to distress, harass; to solicit, tempt, seduce, attract, induce’, which is derived from the adjective sollĭcĭtus ‘agitated, anxious’, literally ‘thoroughly moved’, from sollus ‘whole, entire’ and citus, passive participle of ciēre ‘to put in motion; move stir, shake; to call upon for help, appeal to; etc.’. English borrowed this word through French in the early 15th century. At first in meant just ‘to disturb, trouble’, but by the 16th century it was being used with the sense ‘to entreat, petition’. Sp. solicitar is a learned word that first appeared in writing in the late 15th century. The main sense of Eng. solicit is ‘to seek to obtain by persuasion, entreaty, or formal application’, which is very much the meaning of its Spanish cognate, but it is a very fancy word, unlike its Spanish cognate.
Even fancier than the English verb solicit is the noun solicitude ‘care or concern’. This noun is truly a false friend of Sp. solicitud. Both come from Latin sollĭcĭtūdo, a noun meaning ‘anxiety, agitation’, derived from the adjective sollĭcĭtus ‘anxious’ that we just mentioned.