Friday, February 3, 2012

La Abeja Reina


And "Tortuga," the turtle


Queen bee,
Chimpanzee,
Goldfish
And gorillas…

I’ve mentioned before that I like languages. More recently, I mentioned taking a Spanish class this fall. I had to drop out of the class this spring, due to a scheduling conflict, but I’ve still been studying Spanish at irregular intervals. That is to say, today I was typing vocabulary lists into a spreadsheet. Long, long lists about “la familia y los amigos” and “el reino de los animales.”

Since I like words, and I like playing with words—and I like playing with the history of words as well—I started trying to decipher the linguistic peculiarities of these vocabulary words:

Who, for example, came up with “la mariposa?” Yes, I’ve heard the word before, but I never knew its translation. To my ears, it sounds somehow more “butterfly-like” than the English word, and “la libélula” sounds far more onomatopoetic and gorgeous than plain, old “dragonfly.”

I can’t explain how those words came into being, but a few others sound more familiar—“la foca” I recognize because I know its Latin root “phoca” or “seal”…thanks to reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquarian several years ago. “La mosca,” which rhymes, reminds me of its French linguistic cousin, “le mouche” or “fly.” And who needs much translation for our friends “el elefante,” “la jirafa,” or “el hámster?”

"Hippo," el hipopótamo
I can also guess how, in the world of compound names, we happened to be introduced to two other old friends—hook-foot and mountain-jumper (“la garrapata” and “la saltamontes”). In English, we know them as ticks and grasshoppers.

But can someone explain how the “r” in “crocodile” jumped several letters back to become “el cocodrile?” Or why “o” became “e” to make “dolphin” into “el delfín?”

And can “el escarabajo,” the beetle, possible have a connection to “scarab?”

Sometimes, of course, the word’s origins are much more obvious—for example, when you want to explain why “mosquito” resembles “el mosquito.”

Yes, I like words, and the history of words, and all the extraneous explanations for how they got here and where they are going. Sometimes they seem simply anomalous; sometimes you can tell exactly how cupboards and bookshelves and grasshoppers came to be called by their names. And at other times, we seem to have chased and pulled them across continents in our hurry-and-scurry lives. In other words…

"León," the lion

…leónes, y tigres y osos—oh my!

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