Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Latin root CAN-, Part 2: The name Carmen and Eng. charm

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 6, "An enchanting chant: The Latin root CAN-", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

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The name Carmen and Eng. charm



Most of the words containing the root can‑ in English and Spanish are derived from the passive participle stem cant‑ that contains the suffix ‑t‑ in addition to the root can‑. One curious exception is found in a personal name whose story is quite interesting. It seems that from the root can‑ ‘to sing’, the noun *canmen (can+mĕn) was derived in very early Latin (another early version was presumably *casmen). This noun came to mean a number of related things in Roman culture: ‘a tune, song’, ‘poem, verse’, ‘an oracular response’, ‘a prophecy’, and ‘a form of incantation’ (L&S). The meaning ‘verse’ comes from the fact that verses were often put to song in ancient times. The meaning ‘incantation’, on the other hand, is related to the belief that chanting or the ritual recitation of verses had magical powers, just like religious people today believe that prayer has ‘magical’ powers.

The Latin suffix ‑mĕn or ‑mĭn‑, which is cognate with Greek ‑ma, was used to create nouns that meant ‘a condition’ or ‘the result of an action’. It is found in Latin words such a lumen ‘light’, semen ‘seed’, and germen ‘embryo, bud, shot’ (cf. Eng. luminous, semen, and germ and Sp. luminoso, semen, and germen). This noun presumably changed from canmen to carmen at some point early on by dissimilation of the first of the two nasal consonants, ‑nm‑, from ‑n‑ to ‑r‑ (the same thing happened to the noun germen, from genmen, for example).

This Latin word carmen (genitive: carmĭnis, can‑mĭn‑is) is in a somewhat odd way the source of the woman’s personal name Carmen, common in the Romance languages Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, and not unheard of in the English-speaking world. The name is of Spanish origin and it was popularized outside the Spanish-speaking world when composer Georges Bizet wrote a famous opera in 1875 about a bullfighter and his adulterous wife, whose name was Carmen, which gave the name to the opera as well.

Actually, the Spanish name Carmen does not stem directly from the Latin word that meant ‘song’. Carmen became a name as a variant of the name Carmel or Carmelo, which is the name of a famous coastal mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Judea (Roman Palestine) that appears in the Christian Bible (New Testament). The name of the mountain range, sometimes called a hill, comes from the Hebrew word כַּרְמֶל (karmel), which means ‘God’s vineyard’, since it is derived from כֶּרֶם (kérem) ‘vineyard (of)’ and‎ אֵל ('él) ‘God’. The mountain range is known as Mount Carmel [kaɹ.ˈmɛɫ] in English and Monte Carmelo in Spanish. In Hebrew, it is הַר הַכַּרְמֶל (transliterated into Latin letters as Har HaKarmel or Har ha Karmell).[1] For Christians the place has special significance because the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Christian tradition, is said to have appeared there on 16 July 1251 to a certain Simon Stock, who went on to found the Carmelite religious order, also known as the Carmelites or, in Spanish, carmelitas.[2]

So, in Roman Catholic Christianity, Carmel came to be used as an epithet of the Virgin Mary at Mount Carmel and eventually it came to be used as a female given name as well in Christian Europe, including in English. In Spanish, however, probably because of mistaken identity, the name was changed to Carmen, based on the Latin word that meant ‘song’. We do not know if Carmen started being used in Spanish instead of Carmel out of mistaken identity between the two words or as a hypocoristic or ‘pet name’ form of the name (Sp. nombre cariñoso or sobrenombre).

Traditionally, the full name of a woman whose name is Carmen in the Spanish-speaking world was María del Carmen, which is based on the Virgin’s epithet Nuestra Señora del Carmen or Virgen del Carmen, which is the equivalent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in English (cf. Part II, Chapter 48). The change from Carmel to Carmen for this woman’s name happened in Spanish, presumably under the influence of the Latin word carmen. The men’s version of this name in Spanish is Carmelo, like the name of the mountain in Spanish. From this name, a feminine version was derived, namely Carmela, which is a variant of Carmen in Spanish, as well as a version of Carmen in Italian and Galego.[3]

Leaving the name Carmen for now, let us turn to actual words derived from Latin carmen. This Latin noun made it into Old French as charme (first attested in the 12th century), meaning ‘chant, magic spell, incantation’, which was one of the meanings that the Latin word had, as we saw. Around the year 1300, this word was borrowed into Middle English, with the same meaning (equivalent to Sp. hechizo), eventually coming to be spelled charm [ˈʧʰaɹm]. The English word developed additional senses over the years (the ‘spell’ sense is now obsolete in Modern French charme and it is archaic in English charm). The ‘attractiveness, attractive quality’ sense of Eng. charm, which is the word’s primary meaning today, is first attested in the 17th century and it is shared with Modern French charme (Sp. encanto, see below; atractivo). The sense ‘a small ornament worn on a necklace or bracelet’ for luck came even later, in the 19th century (COED) (cf. Sp. amuleto (de la suerte) ‘lucky charm’ and pulsera de dijes ‘charm bracelet’). There are a few idiomatic expressions in English that contain the noun or verb charm. The expression to work like a charm translates into Spanish as funcionar a las mil maravillas. The expression to lead a charmed life can be translated as tener mucha suerte en la vida.

Related to the noun charme, Old French had the verb charmer ‘to recite or cast a magic spell’. This verb is first attested in the 13th century and presumably it comes from the Late Latin verb carminare, derived from Latin carmen. The French verb was borrowed into English at around the same time as the noun, also as charm. The original meaning, ‘control or achieve by or as if by magic’ (COED), still exists (Sp. hechizar). However, the main sense of this verb today is one related to the main sense of the noun charm, namely ‘delight greatly’ and ‘use one's charm in order to influence (someone)’ (COED) (Sp. encantar, see below). There is also an adjective derived from the ‘present participle’ of the verb charm, namely charming, meaning ‘very pleasing or attractive’ (DOCE), cf. Fr. charmant (the Spanish equivalent is encantador/a, see below).

Spanish does not have any patrimonial descendants of the Latin noun carmen, though there is a very rare use of carmen as a (very) learned word. Spanish authors have used the Latinism carmen with the sense ‘verse or poetic composition, particularly Latin ones’. This use is first documented in the early 15th century in the works of Íñigo López de Mendoza, first Marquis of Santillana (Sp. marqués de Santillana). The word is very fancy and literary and not known to most Spanish speakers.

In addition, Spanish has a rare noun carmen, used primarily in the Spanish spoken in Granada, Spain, that means ‘estate or farm with a large garden’ (Sp. ‘En Granada, quinta con huerto o jardín’, DLE). An earlier version of this word was carme, which changed to carmen under the influence of the name Carmen and the Latinate Spanish word carmen that we just saw. Curiously, this word is unrelated to the Latin word carmen, but it is indirectly related to the word Carmel, since carmen/carme comes from Arabic كَرْم (karm) that means ‘vineyard’ and is thus clearly related to the Hebrew word that means ‘vineyard’ from which comes the name Carmel that we saw earlier.

There are other words in English and Spanish that look like carmen that are not related to this word. The Spanish color word carmín and its English cognate carmine, mostly pronounced [ˈkʰɑɹ.mɪn], both referring to an intense red color, are not related to the word that we have been discussing, despite the outward similarity (Sp. carmín is also used with the meaning ‘lipstick’, since carmine is very common color used for lipsticks, much like rouge, from the French word meaning ‘red’, is used in English for ‘a red powder or cream used as a cosmetic for coloring the cheeks or lips’, COED). Eng. carmine is an early 18th century loan from either French carmin or from Spanish carmín, which is thought to be a blend of two words: (1) a loanword from Arabic قِرْمِز (qirmiz), from Persian کرمست (kirmist), the name of a scarlet worm used to make dyes (known as kermes in English), and (2) Latin minium ‘red lead, cinnabar’.[4]

Finally, we mentioned earlier that (post-classical) Latin derived a verb carmĭnāre from the noun carmen that meant ‘to make verses’ (L&S), which may be the source of French charmer and, thus, of the English verb to charm. We should mention that Latin had another, homonymous verb carmĭnāre that meant ‘to card’, that is, ‘to comb and clean (raw wool or similar material) with a sharp-toothed instrument to disentangle the fibers before spinning’ (COED). (The English noun card means ‘a toothed implement or machine for this purpose’, COED.) This second verb carmĭnāre was derived from a second Latin noun carmĕn which was the name of the tool used for carding. Spanish has a (today) rare version of this Latin verb, namely carmenar or escarmenar, which means ‘to comb, untangle’, but also ‘to punish’ and ‘to swindle’. As we can see from its origin, this verb is unrelated to the Latin noun carmen that meant ‘song’ (for the phenomenon of homonymy, cf. Part I, Chapter 6, §6.3).[5]


[1] Many places have been named after this place that is sacred to Christians. In the United States, there are towns named Carmel in Indiana, Maine, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, among others. In California, Carmel-by-the-Sea, or just Carmel, is a resort city in Monterey County.

[2] This religious order’s full name is Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and in Spanish, Orden de los Hermanos de la Bienaventurada Virgen María del Monte Carmelo (in Latin: Ordo fratrum Beatissimæ Virginis Mariæ de Monte Carmelo). In addition, there is a Catholic mendicant order known as Discalced Carmelites or Barefoot Carmelites (Sp. Orden de los Carmelitas Descalzos), created in 1593 by two Spanish Catholic saints, Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross (Sp. Santa Teresa de Ávila and San Juan de la Cruz). This order has three branches, one composed of nuns (Sp. monjas), one of friars (Sp. frailes, who are members of the mendicant religious orders that started in the 12th century), as well as a third, secular branch.

[3] Other versions of this woman’s name in Galego are Carme and Carmiña. The equivalent woman’s name in Portuguese is Carmo and in Catalan, Carme. Carmina is also a version of the name Carmen in Spanish.

[4] The words Sp. carmín and Eng. carmine seem to be related to Sp. carmesí and its English cognate Eng. crimson [ˈkʰɹım.zən], the name of ‘a deep to vivid purplish red to vivid red’ (AHD), which was cremesyn in Middle English. These words are thought to come from post-classical Latin carmosinus or carmusinus, which is ultimately derived from the same Arabic loan qirmiz (see above) and the Latin suffix ‑īn‑(us). As for what these colors look like: carmine      (RGB: 150, 0, 24), crimson      (RGB: 220, 20, 60).

Also from this same ultimate Persian source, comes the English word kermes [ˈkʰɜɹ.mɪz] or kermes dye for ‘a red dyestuff once prepared from the dried bodies of various female scale insects of the genus Kermes’ (AHD), as well as the botanical name Kermes for this genus. The Spanish equivalent is kermes or quermes, since both spellings are allowed. This Persian word in question ultimately comes from (reconstructed) Proto-Indo-Iranian *kŕ̥miš ‘worm’, from Proto-Indo-European *kʷŕ̥mis (same meaning), cf. Sanskrit: कृमि (kṛ́mi).

[5] The Spanish verb that means ‘to card’ (in the sense we just saw), which is semantically related to the verb escarmenar, is cardar, a cognate of Eng. card, which is unrelated to the more common English word card, cf. Eng. to card wool & Sp. cardar lana. (when used for human hair rather than wool, Sp. cardar also means ‘to backcomb’ (British) or ‘tease’ (US) or, in other words, ‘to comb your hair against the way it grows in order to make it look thicker and shape it into a style’, DOCE). English got this card from French carde ‘teasel-head, wool-card’, a word that seems to come from either Spanish carda or Italian carda ‘thistle, teasel, card’, which is ‘a derivative feminine form from Common Romanic cardo (Italian cardo, Spanish cardo, Portuguese cardo), [meaning] ‘thistle’ < medieval Latin cardus < Latin carduus ‘thistle’’ (OED).

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