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The Nerdy Way To Learn: Spanish » True Spanish Etymology Stories »

Levantar – Elevator

The Spanish levantar –“to rise” (in all senses: to rise in the morning when you wake up, the sun rises, etc) — sounds pretty random. Nothing to do with rising up, right?

It turns out to be from the Latin root levare, from which we get a whole host of words that, in different senses, implies the same. These include:

  • Leaven — as in, leaven bread: the bread rises!
  • Lever — the lever is what you use to rise something!
  • Carnival — the “carne” is from the Latin caro used for “meat” while the -val comes from the same levare. Yes, a carnival is about rising flesh!
  • Relief, Relieve — these words literally mean: to lighten up!
  • Elevate — Yes, the elevator takes you up!

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Bailar and Ballroom

Bailar, Spanish meaning “to dance”, is another one of these Spanish words that sounds random and is difficult until you realize its subtle common origin with a bunch of English words.

Bailar comes from the late Latin ballare, meaning the same, “to dance”, originally from the Greek ballizein, meaning, “to dance or jump around”. From this same root, we get a few English words including:

  • Ballroom — Yes, the room where you go dancing!
  • To Have a Ball — Yes, the “ball” in this phrase is the same “ball” as in bailar and ballroom!
  • Ballad — The love song, unsurprisingly, comes from the same root as dancing: perhaps slow dancing!
  • Ballistics — Directly from the Greek, we get the science of having balls shoot around!

No connection to the English “ball” in the sense of the round object you throw.

Have a ball remembering these!

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Pensar, Pesadilla and Pensive, Compensate

The Latin pensare meant “to weigh”, in both senses: “to weigh something, such as gold, to get its value, usually to make a payment” or “to think about something deeply”.

From this word, we get a few Spanish words, including:

  • Pensar – to “think”, just a simplification and lightening of the original.
  • Pesadilla – with the diminutive -dilla ending added, it means “nightmare”. A dream is really just a small thought!

From the same Latin root, we get a few English words including:

  • Pensive – with the same original meaning as the Latin.
  • Compensate – which originally meant, “to counterbalance”, precisely what you do with a balance of justice!
  • Pansy – which is basically an insult for someone who spends too much time thinking!
  • Span – which originally meant to bind, and came from the original sense of weighing.
  • Poise – originally meant, “to have a certain weight,” which then came to mean “to have a certain look”.

The p-n-s root (sometimes without the ‘n’) is visible in all words.

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Desarrollar and Roll, Control

Desarrollar (Spanish for “to develop”) comes from the Latin roots des– (“reversal”) and rotulus (“a roll of paper”).

This implies a few interesting questions. First, how do we get from a “roll of paper” to “developing”? The story is fun: the Latin rotulus (“roll of paper”) evolved into the Spanish arrollar, meaning “to crush, destroy”. Perhaps because you need to destroy a tree to create a scroll? Perhaps paper destroys the sacred oral tradition? Perhaps the words on paper have the power to destroy? Perhaps destruction is caused by modernity, by the wheel itself (since rotulus was often used to mean “wheel”)?

The conservativeness of the word, however, doubles down. Over time, however, it became more common to use arrollar with the negative (des-) prefix. So, development in Spanish is really just not destroying. The language reveals a far more fundamentally conservative bias than politics ever could.

From the Latin rotulus, we also get the English roll (in the sense of, a roll of toiletpaper) as well as control — which itself comes from contra (“against”) and rotulus. So, control is just what you do in order to fight against the wheel? The more prosaic explanation, however, comes from the rolls being used to record business balances in medieval times, and the control was to double verify each datum. Not as metaphorical but words have layers of meaning, buried deeply under each other, we must not forget.

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Tener – Tenet, -tain

Hold tener spanish english

The Spanish tener (to hold) comes from the Latin tenere for the same.

From the same root tenere, we get the English tenet — think about it, you hold your beliefs.

And it gets even better: from tenere, we also get the English suffix -tain, as in maintain, sustain, contain, detain, obtain, and entertain. And the -tain words map almost identically to the Spanish suffix of the same, the same -tener!

For example, mano, the Spanish for hand, is the same mano in maintain (or mantener, in Spanish) — which thus literally means, “to hold in your hand”!

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