Saturday, December 4, 2021

Eng. nut and Sp. nuez

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Eng. nut and Sp. nuez

The English word nut does not have a simple equivalent in Spanish. For one, the word nut has several major meanings or senses, though one is clearly primary. This primary sense is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED) as ‘a fruit consisting of a hard or tough shell around an edible kernel’. Wiktionary defines this sense more simply as ‘a hard-shelled seed’. Other dictionaries mention that this fruit grows on (some) trees and give examples of such nuts and of expressions containing the word nut. The main sense is clearly the following: nuts are seeds from some trees that are enclosed in a hard shell that does not open easily to release it (i.e., are indehiscent), and these seeds are edible. Some of these botanical nuts are also culinary nuts or nuts that humans consume, although most dictionaries do not mention this. Culinary nuts are also often roasted. Some common culinary nuts are: pine nut (Sp. piñón), cashew nut (Sp. (nuez) anacardo), hazelnut (Sp. avellana), pecan (Sp. pecana), almond (Sp. almendra), pistachio (Sp. pistacho), and Brazil nut (Sp. nuez del Brasil).

Figure 1: Some common “culinary nuts”[1]

Some nuts are not considered to be edible by humans, but only by animals, such as the acorn (Sp. bellota), which is the nut of the oak tree, of which there are many varieties.[a]

Figure 2: Two acorns[2]

The English word nut is often associated with the Spanish word nuez, and it is indeed the case that the two words are cognate since they descend from the same root in the ancestral Proto-Indo-European root. But Sp. nuez means ‘walnut’ in most regular contexts, though it can be used to translate the English word nut in the botanical context. But Sp. nuez is avoided as a generic word for culinary nuts for the obvious reason that it is used to refer to just such type, the walnut. This can bring complications when talking about edible nuts in general or when translating from or into English, as we shall see.

In addition to the main sense of nut that we just discussed, this English word has acquired other derived senses in different contexts. In the mechanical world, Eng. nut has acquired a very different meaning based probably on the notion of similarity with the botanical one, namely ‘a small flat piece of metal or other material, typically square or hexagonal, with a threaded hole through it for screwing on to a bolt’ (COED). This sense translates into Spanish as tuerca, the thing that attaches itself to a perno ‘bolt’, more commonly known as tornillo, a word that also means ‘screw’ in addition to ‘bolt’.[b]

Figure 3: A hex (M4) nut threaded onto an Allen key socket head screw[3]

There is another derived sense for the word nut, one that can be defined as ‘a crazy or eccentric person’, as in My brother is a nut (case), which can be translated into Spanish as chiflado/a or chalado/a, as in Mi hermano está chalado/chiflado. Common English phrases in which nut has this sense are nut-house ‘insane asylum’ (1929) and nut-case ‘crazy person’ (1959) (EOL).

Derived from that sense, there is another one, considered colloquial, which can be defined as ‘an obsessive enthusiast or devotee’ (COED), as in a movie nut or a football nut. This sense of nut can be translated into Spanish as aficionado/a, fanático/a (e.g., Sp. un fanático del cine) or forofo/a (Sp. un forofo del fútbol). This seems seems to have derived from the ‘crazy’ sense in the middle of the 19th century. The expression to be nuts about, as in I’m nuts about opera’ (AHD), seems to stem from an late 18th century phrase be nutts upon that meant ‘to be very fond of’.

There are some additional senses of nut derived from the original one, such as the sense ‘testicle’, which is ‘vulgar slang’ according to the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), equivalent to Sp. huevos [lit. ‘eggs’], cojones, pelotas (Cono Sur and Spain), tanates (México), all of them considered vulgar, in addition to the more clinical testículos. In the context of string musical instruments, a nut is ‘the fixed ridge on the neck of a stringed instrument over which the strings pass’ (COED) (cf. Sp. ceja, cejilla, or cejuela, cf. ceja ‘eyebrow’, from Lat. cĭlĭum ‘eyelid’, cf. sŭpercĭlĭum ‘eyebrow’). In colloquial British English slang, the word nut is also used informally with the sense of ‘(human) head’. Hence the expression to be off one’s nut, equivalent to to be nuts, equivalent to Sp. estar chalado/a.

The English word nut, pronounced [ˈnʌt] is a patrimonial Germanic one, not borrowed. It has cognates in other Germanic languages such as West Frisian nút, Dutch not or noot (which is ‘now rare except in compounds’), German Nuss, Swedish nöt, and Danish nød (OED). It is thought that these words descend from ‘a Germanic base showing an extended form of the same Indo-European base as’ Irish cnó, Welsh cnau, and classical Latin nŭx (OED). English nut descends most directly from Old English hnutu, a word whose Proto-West Germanic source has been reconstructed as *hnut and its Proto-Germanic one as *hnuts, cf. Old High German nuz and Old Norse hnot. As we just saw, Eng. nut is related to Lat. nŭx, though we are told the Germanic words descend from an extended form of the same PIE root that has given us Lat. nŭx, the source of Sp. nuez. This makes Eng. nut and Sp. nuez cognate (related, since they share a root), but not full cognates (since they do not derive from the same source lexeme). In this book we call such words (semi-)cognates (cf. Part I, Chapter 1). The exact form of the Proto-Indo-European root is not certain, though some have reconstructed it as *knew‑. Thus, the following is the best we can do to reconstruct the origin of Eng. nut and Sp. nuez from a questionable Proto-Indo-European root *knew-  (or something similar) with some added extension (suffix), different in each case, let us call them X and Y, through two reconstructed intermediate states—Proto-Germanic and Proto-Italic—and two attested ones—Old English and Latin.

PIE *knew‑? + X

PGmc *hnuts

OEng hnutu

Eng nut

PIE *knew‑? + Y

PItl *knuks

Lat nux

Sp nuez

The form nŭx was the nominative singular wordform of the Latin word we just saw, and it was presumably pronounced [ˈnʊks]. This word’s genitive singular wordform was nŭcis [ˈnʊkɪs]. and its accusative singular one nŭcem [ˈnʊkɛ(m)]. Thus, as we can see, the word’s regular root was nŭc‑ (note that nux is just a special Latin way to spell what could very well have been spelled *nuc‑s, if Latin didn’t have a letter x to represent the combination of sounds [ks]). It is from the accusative wordform nŭcem that patrimonial Sp. nuez ‘walnut’ comes from.

Lat. nux did not mean ‘walnut’, though, as its Spanish descendant does primarily today. It meant what Eng. nut means, namely ‘a nut’, ‘a fruit with a hard shell or rind’ (L&S). The word nux could figure in the Latin name of the most common types of nuts, but often this word was elided. These are the names of the most common types of nuts in the Roman world:

  • (nux) iūglāns ‘a walnut’ (also ‘walnut-tree’) (gen. iūglandis); iūglāns comes from the phrase Iovis glans ‘lit. Jupiter’s acorn’ (cf. Lat. glans glandis: ‘acorn’, ‘any acorn-shaped fruit, beechnut, chestnut, etc.’); this type of nut is known in Spanish as nuez ‘walnut’ (genus Juglans, family Juglandaceae) and the tree is known as nogal ‘walnut tree’ (see below)
  • nux amara ‘a bitter almond’; cf. Sp. almendra amarga, scientific name Prunus dulcis/amygdalus var. amara; the word for a regular, edible almond in Latin was ămygdălum, a loanword from Ancient Greek ἀμύγδαλον (amúgdalon) ‘almond, almond shaped’
  • nux castănĕa ‘chestnut’; cf. Sp. castaña, scientific Castanea sativa; Eng. chestnut descends from an early (Proto-Germanic) loanword from Lat. castănĕa, a word that Latin itself borrowed from Ancient Greek καστάνεια (kastáneia), an alternative form of κᾰ́στν(kástana) ‘sweet chestnut’
  • nux avellana ‘hazelnut’; cf. Sp. avellana, scientific Corylus avellana; Lat. avellana was an adjective derived from the place name Abella or, later, Avella in southern Italy[c]

Sp. nuez is the descendant of Lat. nux [ˈnʊks], but its meaning has become specialized in the popular language to refer to a specific type of edible nut, namely a walnut, an example of meaning narrowing (cf. Part I, Chapter 3). As we saw, Sp. nuez and Eng. nut are cognate (related), since they derive from the same PIE root, but not full cognates since, since it seems that Eng. nut descends from ‘a Germanic base showing an extended form of the same Indo-European base as’ Lat. nux (OED, my italics). In other words, these words derive from the same PIE root, but not from exactly the same stem and, thus, lexeme, which is our definition of what (full) cognates are (cf. Part I, Chapter 1).

Before we get into the difference in meaning between Eng. nut and Sp. nuez, we should note the form of the word nuez, which is pronounced [ˈnu̯eθ] or [ˈnu̯es], depending on the dialect (cf. Part I, Chapters 7, 10, 11). First, we should note that the letter z in this word, which today is pronounced [θ] in most of Spain and [s] elsewhere, and which was pronounced [ʦ̪] in Old Spanish, is just what we would expect from a word that descends from Lat. nŭcem, pronounced [ˈnʊkɛm] in classical Latin, with a ‘hard c’. The [k] changed to [ʦ̪] quite early on, as it always happened in patrimonial words before the front vowels e and i (cf. Part I, Chapter 10). The final e and m were lost eventually, the latter much earlier than the former.

The Latin short Ŭ in the accusative wordform nŭcem, the source of Sp. nuez, on the other hand, did not change in the way we would have expected. This short ŭ should have become Sp. o, as it typically did, unless there was a nearby sound that caused it to change to something else, which is not the case here. In other words, nuez should have been noz in Spanish, not nuez. However, as DCEH tells us, the form nuez is the only one found in the oldest written records. The only possible source for the diphthong ue in Spanish is a stressed short Latin Ŏ, which would have been pronounced [ɔ] originally in Latin but which, when stressed, changed to [ue] in Old Spanish (when unstressed, it changed to [o], written o).[d] This could have happened if classical Latin nŭx had changed to nŏx in Vulgar Latin or at least in Hispanic Vulgar Latin. There is no written evidence for this having happened, but it is entirely possible that it did. As DCEH reminds us, the same issue of an vowel more open than expected is found in the descendants of this Latin word in all three major Hispanic Romances, (Catalan and Portuguese, in addition to Spanish), as well as in many of the Romances of southern Gaul, known collectively as Occitan or lenga d’òc (Sp. lengua de oc), cf. Portuguese and Galego noz and Catalan nou, cognates of Sp. nuez. DCEH suggests that this unexpected vowel change may have been due to the influence of a cognate native Celtic word knŏva ‘nut’, which had a short ŏ.

As we saw, the main meaning of Sp. nuez is ‘walnut’, i.e., ‘fruit of the walnut tree’ (DLE).[e] However, in Botany, that is, when Sp. nuez is used as a technical term, especially when used together with qualifiers, it can also mean ‘nut’, that is, it can be synonymous with Eng. nut. In the words of the Academies’ dictionary: a nuez can also be the ‘fruit of other trees that bears some resemblance to that of the walnut by the nature of its pericarp’ (DLE).[f] This, however, is not the way the word is used by most people, even when they know about the technical usage.

So, we might ask whether there is a word in Spanish than can be used non-technically to mean ‘nut’ and the simple answer is that there really isn’t one. This can be problematic since edible nuts are often consumed nowadays in mixed format, as mixed nuts used for snacking, particularly in the English-speaking world but also in the Spanish-speaking one. Note that when used this way, the English word nuts can refer to a mixture that contains things that are not strictly speaking nuts, such as peanuts, which are a legume, from the same family as peas and lentils. Such mixtures also often contain dried fruits and, in particular, raisins. The traditional name for such mixed nuts in Spanish is frutos secos, lit. ‘dried fruits’ (note the use of the masculine form fruto, not the feminine fruta),[g] though such a mixture may or may not contain dried fruit in addition to nuts. Of course, nuts are fruits (frutos) too and, compared to most fruit (fruta), they are moist, not dry.

    The English word nut is found in a few more common compound words or phrases. The phrase beer nut comes from a trade name for a brand of nuts. Beer Nuts™ is ‘a product name for a popular US snack food. They are nuts which are treated to make them taste both sweet and salty’ (OALD). Some common expressions with the word nut (or nuts) are: a tough nut to crack (cf. Sp. un hueso duro de roer) and to be nuts about something/somebody (cf. Sp. estar loco/a por algo/alguien). The phrase nuts and bolts can have a literal sense, but it also has a figurative one equivalent to ‘the essentials’,  ‘the basic practical details’ (COED) or ‘the basic parts or details of an activity, job, etc.’ (Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's Dictionary), cf. Sp. lo básico, lo esencial, etc. This sense is attested by the middle of the 20th century (EOL).

Finally, the word nut is object found as an object of the verb crack, as in to crack a nut. In other words, crack and nut are often found in collocation. Spanish uses the verb cascar ‘to crack, etc.’ in equivalent expressions, though romper ‘to break’ can also be used. A specialized tool to crack nuts is known as a nutcracker in English. This word translates into Spanish as cascanueces (cf. Part I, Chapter 5).

Sp. nogal and noguera

The main name for the walnut tree in Spanish is nogal (masculine). This is also a patrimonial word, attested in writing as early as the late 11th century (DCEH). This noun descends ultimately from the Late Latin adjective nŭcālis ‘relating to nuts’, or more accurately this word’s accusative wordform nŭcālem. This adjective was derived from the root nŭc‑ of the Latin noun nŭx (see above), plus the third declension adjective-forming suffix ‑āl‑ (the additional suffix ‑is is the masculine/feminine nominative ending of third-declension Latin adjectives.)

The sound changes here are the expected ones, since the Latin short ŭ changed to Spanish o and the intervocalic ‑c‑ changed to ‑g‑. (The Latin short ŭ is unstressed in this case, unlike in the case of nŭcem, but stress is not supposed to affect what Latin short ŭ becomes in Spanish, which is typically o.) The final m was lost early on and then the now final e was lost much later. (For an explanation of all these sound changes, cf. Part I, Chapter 10.)

Another word for ‘walnut tree’ in Spanish is noguera, a word is also a patrimonial descendant of late or medieval Latin (arbor) nŭcārĭa ‘nut tree’, though this word is less common in modern Spanish. There are cognates of this word in other Romance languages such as Portuguese nogueira, French noyer, Catalan noguera, and Occitan noguièr. Lat. nŭcārĭa was the feminine form of the vulgar Latin adjective nŭcārĭus/a which was clearly derived from the same Latin root nŭc‑ of Lat. nŭx, plus the first/second declension adjective-forming suffix ‑ārĭ‑ (the additional suffix ‑a is the feminine nominative ending of first-declension adjectives and the suffix ‑us is the masculine nominative ending of second-declension adjectives.) In the case of noguera, the sound changes that brought about this word’s form from the original Lat. nŭcārĭa are also the expected ones. In addition to the ones mentioned in the case of nogal, we have the very common change from Lat. ‑ari‑ change to Sp. ‑er‑, which presumably went through a state of being ‑air‑ first (e.g. operarius > obrero ‘worker’). Both Noguera and Nogal are found as Spanish last names, presumably derived from place names (toponyms).

Eng. nucleus/nuclear ~ Sp. núcleo/nuclear

Lat. nū̆clĕus is a contraction of an earlier nŭcŭlĕus (nŭc‑ŭlĕ‑us), which was a diminutive of the noun nux and which originally meant simply ‘little nut’ and it referred to the seed of a nut, its edible part. Figuratively, Lat. nū̆clĕus could also mean ‘kernel, core, nucleus’. Lat. nŭcŭlĕus was formed from the root nŭc‑ of the noun nŭx, and the suffix ‑ŭlĕ‑(us) that formed masculine diminutives (the final ‑us is the nominative singular inflection following the diminutive suffix). This suffix descends from a blend of the suffix ‑ul‑(us)/‑ol‑(us)/‑l‑(us) plus the suffix ‑ĕ‑(us/a/um) that originally formed adjectives from nouns (cf. Eng. ‑eous and Sp. Spanish: ‑eo, as in Eng. ferreous and Sp. férreo.)

In fairly recent times, this Latin word was borrowed into English as nucleus [ˈn(j)u.kli.əs] and into Spanish as núcleo [ˈnu.kle.o]. As we can see, English left the spelling of the word as it was in Latin (nominative singular case), while adapting the pronunciation to its phonology, of course. Spanish made a small change to this loanword from Latin, as it typically does, namely it changed the masculine singular inflection ‑us to ‑o (cf. Part I, Chapter 8). The plural form of Eng. nucleus is nuclei [ˈn(j)u.kli.ˌaɪ̯], which is how the nominative plural form of the Latin word was spelled (i.e., the inflection was ‑i). Actually, the OED tells us that the regularized plural form nucleuses has been used in English before but that it is ‘rare’. Both solutions are found in recent Latin loanwords, namely maintenance of the Latin plural and regularization to ‑(e)s. Spanish, as usual, regularized the plural of núcleo to núcleos.

As we mentioned, Sp. núcleo is not a patrimonial word, but rather a learned loanword from Latin (Sp. cultismo), though not a fancy word any longer (Sp. palabra culta). DCEH tells us that it can be found in a Spanish ‘dictionary’ already in the late 15th century, seemingly with the botanical sense the word had in Latin. Modern Spanish dictionaries give several meanings for the word núcleo. Some of these senses are botanical ones that refer to seeds, but most are figurative and technical. Until recently, Spanish dictionaries still listed the botanical senses first, before the derived (figurative) ones, such as DRAE 22 (2001) and María Moliner. Thus, for example, the first two senses for núcleo in María Moliner 2e (very similar to the two first senses in DRAE 22) were ‘1. m. * Almond or seed of fruits that have a shell, such as walnut. 2. * Fruit pit/stone’.[h] In the most recent (online) version of the Academies’ dictionary (DLE), the earlier sense #3 has been bumped to #1, namely the sense ‘1. m. Central part or point of something material or immaterial’.[i] Other current dictionaries, such as in Larousse and Vox, agree that this is the main meaning of Sp. núcleo, though no dictionary mentions yet that the botanical sense is archaic, though they may have to soon.[j] Other senses for núcleo in these dictionaries mirror the technical senses of Eng. nucleus in English ones as a term used in physics, chemistry, biology, linguistics, botany, and astronomy.

The meanings of Eng. nucleus are pretty much those modern Sp. núcleo, minus the botanical senses, which as we said are rare if not archaic in Spanish today. The OED tells us that Eng. nucleus is first attested in English in the second half of the 17th century to refer to the ‘core of a comet’ (1668) and a ‘central idea’ (1672). Again, no English dictionary gives a botanical or seed-related sense for nucleus, other than the OED, which gives these senses as ‘obsolete’.[k] COED gives its main meaning as ‘the central and most important part of an object or group’, with three more technical senses. The AHD gives 9 main senses for Eng. nucleus, all but the first two being technical ones in biology, anatomy, physics, chemistry, astronomy, meteorology, and linguistics.

According to DCEH, the Italian word nocchio or gnocco, which refers to a sweet meatball or dumpling, is probably a patrimonial descendant of the Latin word nucleus. This Italian word has been borrowed into both English and Spanish. In English, it is used in its (Italian) plural form gnocchi ‘(in Italian cooking) small dumplings made from potato, semolina, or flour’ (COED). DCEH tells us that ñoclo is already attested in the mid-16th century with the same meaning as the original one just mentioned and that in Argentina, ñoques (from the Italian plural gnocchi) refers to ‘a kind of fritter made with boiled and broken up potatoes, eggs and flour’.[l] Other sources, however, think that the origin of this Italian word is unknown and that it is most likely of Germanic origin.[m]

From the Latin noun nū̆clĕus an adjective was derived by means of the Latin adjective-forming suffix ‑ār‑(is), giving us the adjective nucleāris (nucle‑ār‑is). This is a New Latin word, for there is no indication that it was ever used in classical Latin. The word was borrowed into English as nuclear [ˈn(j)u.kli.əɹ] in the first half of the 19th century (OED), with many different meanings having been added since then in the fields of astronomy, biology, medicine, and linguistics, among others. Spanish borrowed this word as nuclear [nu.kle.ˈaɾ] with very similar meanings to Eng. nuclear and it was no doubt cloned from either this English word or from its French cognate nucleaire.

Eng. nugget

Because of its form and its meaning, one might have thought that the English word nugget might have some relation to the word nut and, thus, to Sp. nuez. That, however, is not the case. Eng. nugget [ˈnʌɡət] seems to be derived from a dialectal English word nug meaning ‘lump’, which is of unknown origin. The word seems to contain the diminutive suffix ‑et that Middle English borrowed from Old French, a suffix that comes from Vulgar Latin *‑ittum, the source of the Spanish diminutive suffix ‑ito/a. The word nugget first appeared in the written record in the first half of the 19th century, first with the meaning ‘a small, compact, stocky person; (also) an undersized animal, a runt’ (OED).

[a] The word acorn, which was spelled æcern in Old English, descends from a compound word that contained the word corn with its original sense of ‘a kernel or seed of a plant’. The first part of the compound was not the ancestor of the word oak, as one might have thought, but rather a root that goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *ōg‑, meaning ‘fruit, berry’ (AHD).

[b] There are four main types of such hardware nuts: hex nut (Sp. tuerca hexagonal), T-nut (aka tee nut or blind nut, Sp. tuerca T), hex cap nut, wingnut (Sp. tuerca (de) mariposa).

The origin of the word tuerca is uncertain, though it most likely came from an earlier puerca by influence of the initial t in the word tornillo ‘screw, bolt’.

[c] Eng. hazelnut is a compound that includes the word hazel ‘a shrub or small tree bearing catkins in spring and edible nuts in autumn’ (COED); another word for ‘hazelnut’ in English is filbert, from filbert-nut, a calque from Anglo-Norman noix de filbert, since these nuts become ripe around Saint Philibert’s Day (Aug. 20)

[d] In the Spanish historical linguistics tradition, this short o is written ǫ, the letter o with an ‘ogonek’, also known as o caudata, which was a letter used in Old Norse.

[e] Original: ‘Fruto del nogal; es de forma ovoide…’ (DLE).

[f] Original: ‘Fruto de otros árboles que tiene alguna semejanza con el del nogal por la naturaleza de su pericarpio. Nuez de coco [‘coconut’], [nuez] de areca, de burí, de nipa, [nuez] moscada [‘nutmeg’].’ (DLE).

[g] Both fruto and fruta translate as fruit into English. Dictionaries give several different definitions (senses) for masculine fruto, but the main one is ‘product of plants, which, apart from the utility it may have, serves to develop and protect the seed’ (‘producto de las plantas, que, aparte de la utilidad que puede tener, sirve para desarrollar y proteger la semilla’, DLE). This is the second definition for the word in the DLE, but the first sense is a very similar and more technical one in Botany, not surprisingly since this term is perhaps mostly used as a technical term. The word fruto can also be translated in some contexts as result or product. It is found in expressions such as dar fruto ‘to bear fruit’ (AEI), sacar fruto de algo ‘to profit from something’ (AEI), fruto prohibido ‘forbidden fruit’ (OSD), dar/rendir frutos ‘to bear fruit’ (OSD), el fruto de su trabajo ‘the fruits of her labor’ (OSD), fruto de su imaginación ‘a figment of his imagination’ (OSD), el fruto de tu vientre ‘the fruit of your womb’ (expression in a Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary).

The feminine word fruta, on the other hand, refers to a subset of such frutos characterized by being edible: ‘edible fruit of certain cultivated plants, e.g., pear, cherry, strawberry, etc.’ (‘fruto comestible de ciertas plantas cultivadas; p. ej., la pera, la guinda, la fresa, etc.’, DLE).

[h] Original: ‘1. m. *Almendra o semilla de los frutos que tienen cáscara, como la nuez. 2. *Hueso de las frutas’ (María Moliner).

[i] Original: ‘1. m. Parte o punto central de algo material o inmaterial’ (DLE)

[j] Original: ‘parte o punto central de alguna cosa material o inmaterial’ (Larousse).

[k] OED: ‘4. Botany. †a. The innermost, often edible portion of a nut. Obsolete. †b. The part of a seed enclosed by integuments. Obsolete. c. The nucellus of an ovule. Now disused. d. In lichens: the disc of an apothecium. Now rare. †e. Mycology. In ascomycetes: the totality of structures within the perithecial wall. Obsolete.’ etc.

[l] Original: ‘una especie de buñuelos hechos con papas hervidas y deshechas, huevos y harina’ (DCEH).

[m] Some sources argue that It. gnoccho or nocchio it is perhaps related to the word for a regional word ‘knot, joint’ of Germanic origin: *knokō in Proto-West Germanic, *knukô in Proto-Germanic, derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *gnew‑ ‘a bundle; knot’.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Slaves and slavery, part 21: Eng. indenture

  [This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 21 of Slaves and Slavery: Go to Part 1

Other English and Spanish words related to slavery

Eng. indenture

The last word that we are going to look at in this chapter is indenture [ɪnˈdenʧəɹ], a word that was used in the past to describe certain types of a written agreement or legal contracts. One of the most common types of indentures was ‘an agreement binding an apprentice to a master’ (COED). The word indenture has also been used at times to refer to some types of land transactions. Later on, in the 17th century, indenture came to be used to refer to ‘a contract by which a person agreed to work for a set period for a colonial landowner in exchange for passage to the colony’ (COED). This word is relevant here because the conditions of colonial indentured workers have often been compared to those of slavery.

A more general, earlier meaning of the noun indenture was ‘a document in duplicate having indented edges’ (AHD), that is to say, ‘a formal agreement, contract, or list, formerly one of which copies with indented edges were made for the contracting parties’ (COED). Spanish has no cognate of this word. To translate the ‘apprenticeship contract’ sense, which is the most common one found in English-Spanish dictionaries, one may use the expression contrato de aprendizaje (OSD). This is the only translation that most English-Spanish dictionaries give for the word indenture. Some provide a translation for the ‘contract’ sense, which is simply contrato ‘contract’. For the general sense of ‘contract with indentations’, we can use the expressions acuerdo dentado or documento dentado, though these descriptive expressions are rare.[a] Why dentado, a word that means ‘with teeth’? That is because as we will see, the word indenture contains the root dent‑, the source of Sp. diente ‘tooth’ (from Lat. dĕnt‑em) and a number of other related words such as the cognates Eng. dental ~ Sp. dental and Eng. dentist ~ Sp. dentista.

The noun indenture was converted in English into the verb (to) indenture in the 17th century. The few English-Spanish dictionaries that have this verb translate it as contratar como aprendiz, using only one of the senses of the noun indenture. Harrap’s English-Spanish Dictionary tells us that this verb is old-fashioned and we are given the following example He was indentured to a carpenter Sp. Lo contrataron como aprendiz de carpintero (Harraps).

Eng. indenture is also related to the verb indent and, thus, to the noun indentation derived from that verb. Modern English indenture descends from Middle English endenture, which was a late 14th century loan from Old French endenteure or endenture, which meant literally ‘indentation, furnishing with teeth’. This word was probably based on an unattested Late Latin noun *indentātūra (same meaning), derived by means of the feminine noun-forming suffix ‑ūr‑(a) from the stem *indentāt‑, of the passive participle of the unattested Medieval Latin verb *ĭndĕntāre ‘to indent, provide with teeth’, a verb that contains the Latin root dĕnt‑ ‘tooth’ (ĭn-dĕnt-ā‑re).

This English verb indent (there is another one, as we shall see) was borrowed in the 15th century from French endenter (attested in the 12th century), which meant ‘to make a tooth-like incision or incisions in the edge or border of; to notch or jag; now, chiefly, to give a zigzag or strongly seriate outline to’ (OED).

The noun indentation, used to refer to ‘the act or result of furnishing with teeth’, synonymous with one of the senses of Lat. *indentātūra and thus related to Eng. indenture, is not found in English until the late 16th century. The OED tells us that indentation was formed in English from the verb indent by means of the Latinate suffix ‑ation, and not borrowed from Latin. Finally, English also derived a noun indent from the verb indent that could in some cases be a synonym of indenture, and in British English can also mean ‘an official order or requisition for goods or stores’ (COED).

To understand what all this stuff about teeth has to do with contracts, we have to go to an even earlier sense of the English verb indent, found in the 14th century, which was ‘to make a contract by means of documents with indentations (‘teeth’)’, or as the OED explains, ‘to sever the two halves of a document, drawn up in duplicate, by a toothed, zigzag, or wavy line, so that the two parts exactly tally with each other; to cut the top or edge of two or more copies of a legal document in such an exactly corresponding shape; hence, to draw up (a document) in two or more exactly corresponding copies’ (OED), cf. Figure 9. This way of making contracts that neither party to the contract could alter, by means of making identical or mirror-image indentations in both copies of a document, is reminiscent, no doubt, of the use of notched tally sticks to record debts used in England in the Middle Ages.[b]

Figure 9: Half of an indenture document of 1723 showing the randomly cut edge at the top[1]

The meanings just described for the verb indent and its derived nouns indentation and indent are not the ones most modern speakers are familiar with. Most speakers are familiar with the typographical of printing sense in which the verb indent means ‘position or begin (a line or block of text) further from the margin than the main part of the text’ (COED) and the noun indentation means ‘the action of indenting or the state of being indented’ (COED). The printing senses of the verb indent and thus of the noun indentation are from the late 17th century.

Another common modern sense of the verb indent is ‘make a dent or depression in’ (COED), which we might have thought to be derived from the early sense ‘to notch or serrate the edge of’ (AHD). Actually, the OED tells us that the ‘notch’ and the ‘dent’ senses are two different verbs indent in English. Thus, whereas the former was borrowed from French endenter (see above), the latter was derived by conversion in English from the verb (to) dent by means of the prefix in‑. Although the origins of these verbs may be different, the OED concedes that ‘the two are in actual use (and perhaps have always been) consciously regarded not as distinct words, but only as senses or uses of the same word’ and that ‘[t]his blending is even more apparent in the derivatives, such as indentation’ (OED).

Interestingly, Spanish does use two different words for the two senses of Eng. indentation that we just mentioned. This noun translates into Spanish as mella if made along an edge and as hendidura if it refers to a dent or depression. Spanish typically translates to the two English verbs indent by means of periphrastic expressions that use the nouns: hacer una mella and hacer una hendidura. (There is a verb mellar in Spanish but it is not common today. Actually the noun mella, which is also not very common either, as derived from the verb mellar. Most common is the idiomatic expression hacer mella ‘to make an impression’.) In the context of printing, the noun indentation, i.e., ‘the blank space between a margin and the beginning of an indented line’ (AHD), translates into Spanish as sangría (the indented space itself is just espacio) and the printing sense of the verb indent translates as sangrar, a verb that also means ‘to bleed’.

Going back to Eng. indenture, we find that much more common that the noun indenture or the verb indenture is the adjective indentured derived by conversion from the verb’s past participle. This adjective is often found in the phrase indentured servant (or, much less commonly, indentured laborer or indentured worker). This expression used to refer to ‘a man (almost never a woman) who took out a loan (an indenture), most often to pay for the cost of his transportation to a job location: from Europe to North America, for example. In order to pay off this loan, the employee (indenturee) agreed to work without salary for the lender for a specific number of years’ (Wikipedia).[c] In the early days of the American colonies, many of the newcomers from England and other places paid their way by becoming indentured workers. This system of labor has come to be known as indentured servitude.

There is no commonly accepted phrase to translate indentured servitude into Spanish, which is often translated as servidumbre (see above). Two types of indentured servitude may be specified, namely servidumbre de aprendizaje for the apprenticeship type mentioned earlier, and servidumbre por contrato for the other ones. There is also no standard way to translate indentured servant either. Among the options that one finds some simple ones such as sirviente contratado, sirviente por contrato, or trabajador contratado, whereas some are resort to explaining the institution, such as sirviente atado a un contrato de cumplimiento forzoso.[2]

Indentured workers started to arrive to the American colonies after the settling of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607. An indentured worker in the North American context was not strictly speaking a slave, since in theory they became free after the period of time stipulated in their contract (indenture), which was typically four to seven years. In the early years, such workers received a ‘freedom package’ at the end of their service, which included some land. Later on, however, all the good land was taken, and these workers were pushed west towards the mountains and other less desirable areas.

In practice, however, the life of many indentured workers was not much better than that of slaves. They were often treated as harshly as slaves were treated and their contracts could be bought and sold as well. Landowners tended to prefer slaves, however, who started to come to Virginia in 1619 and eventually African slaves came to replace indentured servants in this British colony, though indentured servitude persisted to some extent until the end of the 18th century. At the beginning, however, between the early 17th century and the time of the American Revolution, between half and two thirds of all immigrants to the British colonies (south of New England) were indentured servants, mostly from England and Germany. They were most common in the region between New Jersey and Virginia. Note also that although most Europeans entered indenture willingly, a small number of them where tricked or forced into such an arrangement, which includes being kidnapped.[3] About 10% of the indentured servants were prisoners.

The length of period an indentured servant served could also be lengthened for a number of reasons, which included pregnancy for female servants. Also, we must not forget that many indentured workers died before the end of their service. The death rate of indentured servants in the Americas is not known, though it has been claimed to have been very high, between a third and half of all the indentured servants, but it seems that death was more common in the Caribbean British colonies due to sicknesses such as malaria.

Indentured servitude was a system similar to one known as debt peonage, which was used in southern New England and Long Island especially with Native Americans early on and until the American Revolution. Debt peonage, also known as just peonage, debt slavery, debt bondage, or bonded labor, is ‘a system by which debtors are bound in servitude to their creditors until their debts are paid’ (AHD).[4] These terms are usually translated into Spanish as servidumbre por deudas, lit. ‘debt servitude’. This type of servitude or slavery goes back to ancient times. A peon is primarily ‘a worker bound in servitude to a landlord creditor’ (AHD) but also, in the American context, ‘an unskilled laborer or farm worker of Latin America or the southwest United States’ (AHD). (For more on Eng. peon ~ Sp. peón, see Part II, Chapter XXX).

A special type of indentured servant in the Americas were the redemptioners, who did not sell themselves into indenture until they arrived in the US in order to pay for their passage. Since the passage was not paid up-front and they did not have a contract before they left, they were at a disadvantage since they did not have many options once they had already arrived and had to take whatever terms and conditions they could get.[5]


[a] The site Traducción Jurídica explains the different ways in which the term indenture has been used in English and the different ways in which it can be translated into Spanish, cf. (accessed on 2021.01.15).

[b] As David Graeber explains in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “One of the most important forms of currency in England in Henry’s time [Henry II (1154–1189)] were notched “tally sticks” used to record debts. Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called “the stock” (hence the origin of the term “stock holder”) and the debtor kept the other, called “the stub” (hence the origin of the term “ticket stub.”) Tax assessors used such twigs to calculate amounts owed by local sheriffs. Often, though, rather than wait for the taxes to come due, Henry’s exchequer would often sell the tallies at a discount, and they would circulate, as tokens of debt owed to the government, to anyone willing to trade for them.”.

[c] Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (En-En) defines indentured servant the following way: ‘Amer. Hist. a person who came to America and was placed under contract to work for another over a period of time, usually seven years, esp. during the 17th to 19th centuries. Generally, indentured servants included redemptioners, victims of religious or political persecution, persons kidnapped for the purpose, convicts, and paupers’. [1665-75] (RHWU). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary dates indentured servant to 1723 and defines it as ‘a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance’ (MWC).

The End

[1] Source: (2021.01.15) “One half of an indenture document dated 24 June 1723, the ninth year of the reign of King George I of Great Britain. Characteristic of an indenture is the randomly curved cut (or torn) edge (visible at the top on this half), capable of proving a match to the counterpart document.”

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