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Introduction: some often confused words
The Spanish words mayor and mejor are often confused by English-speaking learners of Spanish. In particular, they are confused with the English words mayor and major. What’s the deal with these words that look so similar but are used so differently? Interestingly, they all go back to irregular Latin comparative adjectives. In this chapter we will look at these words and a few other ones that descend from irregular Latin comparative adjectives. We will start with a brief description of these words.
In English, mayor, pronounced [ˈmeɪ̯.əɹ] or [ˈmɛ.əɹ], refers to the ‘head of government of a city, town, borough, or municipal corporation’ (AHD). This meaning translates into Spanish as alcalde or by this word’s feminine wordform alcaldesa ‘mayoress’.
Eng. major [ˈmeɪ̯.ʤəɹ] is, first of all, an adjective meaning ‘important, serious, or significant’, as in a major accident. This adjective translates into Spanish as (muy) importante, muy serio, or principal, among others, e.g. a major accident ‘un accidente muy serio’, all major credit cards ‘todas las principales tarjetas de crédito’, major problems ‘problemas serios/importantes’.
Eng. major can also be a noun, one with several meanings. One is ‘a rank of officer in the US Army and the Air Force, above captain and below lieutenant colonel’, which in Spanish translates as comandante in Spain but also mayor in some Spanish-American countries. The noun major can also refer to ‘a major key, interval, or scale’ in music, which translates into Spanish as mayor. Another common meaning of the noun major is found in the context of American universities, where it means ‘a student’s principal subject or course’ and, by extension, ‘a student specializing in a specified subject’ (COED). From this last meaning, we have the derived verb to major. To the extent that this sense can be translated into Spanish, since the educational systems tend to be somewhat different, it is translated as especialidad, asignatura principal, or carrera (cf. Eng. career).
Sp. mayor [ma.ˈʝoɾ] is a cognate of both of these English words, mayor and major, as we shall see, since they also descend from the Latin comparative adjective māior ‘bigger, greater, superior’. The meaning of the Spanish word is quite close to that of the Latin adjective. It translates into English primarily as bigger, greater, or larger, when used as a comparative, and as biggest, greatest, or largest, when used as a superlative (with a definite article). This adjective also has some a special sense when used to refer to the relative age of people, in which case it translates as older or oldest, but also as mature, elderly, or grown-up, depending on the context.
As for Sp. mejor, this is also a comparative/superlative adjective, namely the comparative of the adjective bueno/a, and it thus translates as (comparative) better, as in Mi teléfono es mejor que el tuyo ‘My phone is better than yours’, or (superlative) best, as in Mi teléfono es el mejor ‘My phone is the best one’.
Latin māior and magnus
As we just saw, Eng. mayor and major and Sp. mayor all come from the Latin adjective māior ‘bigger, greater, superior’, the irregular comparative form of the adjective magnus ‘big, great, large, much, abundant’ (feminine magna, neuter magnum).
Latin māior, like the adjective it is associated with, come from Proto-Indo-European words that contained the Proto-Indo-European root meǵh₂- ‘great’. The word māior goes back to a (reconstructed) Proto-Italic word *magjōs, which descends from Proto-Indo-European *méǵh₂yōs, formed from the root *meǵh₂- ‘great’ and the comparative suffix *‑yōs.
In Latin māior we can recognize the comparative suffix ‑ior ‘more’ which attached itself to adjective stems to produce comparative adjectives. It is equivalent to the comparative suffix ‑er in English, in words such as bigger, larger, sooner, or simpler. Actually, the two suffixes are cognates since they both derive from the same Proto-Indo-European suffix. This Eng. ‑er can be traced back to Proto-Germanic *‑ōzô that formed the comparative of certain types of adjectives, ultimately from PIE suffix *‑yos we just saw (the related suffix *‑ōz created adverbs, and *‑ōstaz, the source of Eng. ‑est, created superlatives). (Note that English has other suffixes ‑er too, from different sources, such as agentive ‑er, as in leader ‘one who leads’.)
The Latin comparative suffix ‑ior was lost in Spanish other than in a handful of irregular comparatives, namely the following: mayor, menor, mejor, and peor (see next section). In Latin, it was a regular suffix that could be regularly attached to adjectives, as we shall see in the next section. Regular comparatives in Spanish are formed with the adverb más ‘more’, which descends from Lat. magis, adverbial form of magnus ‘big, etc.’.
Lat. māior was pronounced [ˈmaj.jɔr], with a geminate (double) [j] sound. An earlier spelling of this word was maiior, which better reflects that pronunciation. This suggests that the Proto-Indo-European /ǵ/ at the end of this root assimilated its sound to that of the following /y/. In Medieval Latin, on the other hand, the word came to be spelled with a variant of the letter 〈I〉, one which did not exist in Classical Latin, namely 〈J〉, hence the spelling major (cf. Part I, Chapter 8, §184.108.40.206).
The connection between the comparative māior and the basic adjective magnus ‘big’ in Latin is not a regular one whose derivation can be stated in terms of adding a suffix to the adjective. Given the Proto-Indo-European root meǵh₂- and the adjective *méǵh₂s ‘great’ derived from it, we might have expected the Latin adjective to be *magus, cognate with Ancient Greek μέγας (mégas) ‘big, large’ (as in Eng. megalomaniac), for instance, or Sanskrit मह (mahá) ‘great, mighty, strong, abundant’ (as in maharajah, a word of Indian origin). The fact that the adjective was magnus in Latin instead of magus is due to the Proto-Indo-European source of this adjective being derived from the original adjective by means of a suffix. It has been reconstructed as *m̥ǵh₂nós.
Latin magnus was occasionally used as a name in Latin, so for example it was used as the cognomen of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known in English as Pompey [ˈpɒm.pi] (Sp. Pompeyo) or Pompey the Great. The ‘name’ became more common among royalty in the Middle Ages. It is mostly associated with the Frankish ruler Charlemagne, whose name is a French adaptation of the Latin name Carolus Magnus, lit. ‘Charles the Great’. Curiously, Magnus became popular as a first name in Scandinavia. Presumably Scandinavian Magnus came from Charlemagne’s name but it also seems that it may have been merged with an existing Germanic name Magni derived from the Old Norse element magn meaning ‘power, strength’ and ‘amount, quantity’, which is no doubt a descendant of Proto-Indo-European root *méǵh₂s ‘great’. (In Norse mythology, Magni is the name of a son of Thor and the giant Járnsaxa.) Seven kings of Norway were named Magnus between 1024 and 1347, as well as four kings of Sweden between 1106 and 1374, and one of Denmark in the 11th century. The name was also brought to the British Isles during the Middle Ages by Scandinavians.
Many English and Spanish words are descendants of words that contained in their origin the Proto-Indo-European root meǵh₂- ‘great’. They are almost always loanwords from the classical languages. Only one native English word descends from this root, namely much, which is unrelated to Sp. mucho, a false cognate. The main ancient words that are still found in one way or another in modern English or Spanish are the following:
- Latin: magnus < PIE *m̥ǵh₂-nós, derived from *méǵh₂s ‘great’ (synonym: grandis, antonym: parvus)
- Ancient Greek μέγας (mégas) ‘great, large, mighty’, a conflation of PIE *méǵh₂s ‘great’ with its derivative *meǵh₂los ‘great’ (see next item)
- Ancient Greek μεγᾰ́λος (megálos) (synonym of μέγας mégas) < PIE *méǵh₂-lo-s
- Sanskrit महस् (máhas) < PIE *méǵh₂-os ~ méǵh₂-es-
- Old English micel ‘big, large, great; much, a lot’ > Middle English muchel > English much
- Eng. Charlemagne ~ Sp. Carlomagno < Lat. Carolus Magnus ‘Charles the Great’
- Eng. Magna Carta ~ Sp. magna carta < Lat. magna carta ‘great charter’;
- Sp. magno/a : a fancy and rare learned literary adjective that means ‘great in size or importance’, e.g. aula magna ‘main lecture hall’
- Eng. master - maestro - mister ~ Sp. maestro < Lat. măgĭster ‘teacher, leader, etc.’ (regular stem: magistr‑) < magis ‘more, great’ + the ancient suffix *‑tero‑ (antonym: minister)
- Sp. magisterio ‘teacher training; teaching profession’ < Lat. măgĭsterĭum ‘the office of a president, chief, etc.; teaching, instruction, advice’ (măgĭs‑ter‑ĭ‑um)
- Eng. magisterial ~ Sp. magistral < Late Latin măgĭsterĭālis (măgĭs‑ter‑ĭ‑āl‑is)
- Eng. magistrate ~ Sp. magistrado < Lat. măgistrātus ‘the office or rank of a magister, a magisterial office, civil office, magistracy’ < măgistr‑ + ‑āt‑us
- Eng. magnate ~ Sp. magnate < post-class. Lat. măgnātus (or magnas) ‘great man, important person’ < măgn‑ + ‑āt‑us
- Eng. magnitude ~ Sp. magnitud < Lat. magnĭtūdĭnem ‘greatness, size’ (nom. magnĭtūdo) < magn‑us + -tūd‑ō (‑tūdĭn‑), a suffix that formed abstract nouns indicating a state or condition
- Eng. magnanimous ~ Sp. magnánimo/a < Lat. magnănĭmus ‘great-souled, brave, bold, noble; magnanimous; generous’ < magn‑us ‘big’ + animus ‘soul, spirit’, a calque of Ancient Greek μεγαλόψυχος (megalópsukhos) (cf. antonym: Eng. pusillanimous ~ Sp. pusilánime < pusillanimis ‘faint-hearted, timid, pusillanimous’ < pusillus ‘very small’ + animus ‘spirit’, a calque of Ancient Greek ὀλιγόψυχος (oligópsukhos).
- Eng. magnanimity ~ Sp. magnanimidad < Lat. măgnănĭmĭtas ‘greatness of soul, magnanimity’, derived from the previous adjective by means of the suffix ‑ĭ‑tāt‑ that formed abstract nouns (măgn‑ănĭm‑ĭ‑tāt‑)
- Sp. magnifico/a < Lat. magnĭfĭcus/a ‘great, glorious, splendid, grand, etc.’
- Eng. magnificent (15th century) < Old French magnificent word put together from the Latin stem magnificent‑, present participle stem of the verb magnĭfĭcāre and stem of Lat. magnificent‑ior, comparative of magnĭfĭcus; or else an adaptation of magnificence (see below) and the adjectival suffix ‑ent
- Eng. magnificence ~ magnificencia < magnĭfĭcentĭa ‘greatness in action or in sentiment’, abstract noun derived from the adjective magnĭfĭcus (see above)
- Eng. magnify ~ Sp. magnificar < magnĭfĭcāre (the most common sense of Eng. magnify typically translates as aumentar or ampliar, not magnificar)
- Eng. majesty ~ Sp. majestad < Lat. māiestātem (nom. māiestās) ‘greatness, grandeur, dignity, majesty, elevation’ < formed from the ancestor of māior + the suffix ‑tāt‑
- Eng. majority < Middle French majorité < Medieval Latin māiōrĭtātem (nom. māiōrĭtās) ‘majority, superiority’, formed from māior + the suffix ‑tāt‑ (antonym: minority)
- Sp. mayoría (13th century): presumably derived in Spanish from mayor + ‑ía as a calque of French majorité (antonym: minoría)
- Eng. majuscule ~ Sp. mayúsculo/a < Lat. māiusculus (an early diminutive of māior) ‘somewhat greater, larger; considerable’
- Eng. omega ~ Sp. omega, name of the Greek letter Ω (lowercase ω) for the long vowel [ɔː] < Ancient Greek ὦ (ô) μέγα (mega) ‘large’
- Eng. maximum ~ Sp. máximo: < Lat. māxĭmus/a/um ‘large, great; aged, old; etc.; greatest, largest’, originally a superlative of magnus ‘great’ < Old Latin *magissimus/a/um (antonyms: Eng. minimum ~ Sp. mínimo/a < Lat. mĭnĭmus/a/um)
- Eng. maxim ~ Sp. máxima < post-classical Latin maxima, noun derived from the feminine adjective maxima (see previous)
- Eng. magnum ~ Sp. magnum: in some dialects of English, a double-size bottle of wine or liquor (1.5 liters); in the US, a trademark name for ‘a gun designed to fire cartridges that are more powerful than its calibre would suggest’ (COED) (some dialects of Spanish have borrowed this latter sense) < Lat. magnum, nominative singular neuter form of magnus
- Eng. maharajah ~ Sp. maharajá/marajá: ‘a king or prince in India ranking above a rajah, especially the sovereign of one of the former native states’ (AHD)
- Eng. maharishi, (Sp. guía espiritual hindú): ‘a Hindu teacher of mystical knowledge’ (WNTIU), ‘a great Hindu sage or spiritual leader’ (OAD)
- Eng. mahatma ~ Sp. mahatma ‘ascetic person or spiritual leader in India’, as in mahatma Gandhi