BiscottiThe picture to the left shows a couple of Italian biscotti. But where did that odd word come from? In Italian, the word biscotti is plural, the singular being biscotto. The Italian verb cuocere means "to cook". Its past participle is cotto, meaning "cooked" (think of terra cotta, which means "cooked earth"). The Latin prefixes bi or bis are commonly used in the Romance languages to mean two, or twice. Add it to cotto, and you get biscotto, "twice cooked". And that's what a biscotto is: You cook it once to make the bread, and then you cook it a second time to dry it out and make it crispy.

The same thing has happened in several languages:

Language verb past part. twice
Italian cuocere cotto biscotto
French cuire cuit biscuit
Spanish cocer cocho bizcocho
German backen gebacken zweiback

Some notes on the above: English simply stole the French word biscuit, without changing the spelling (but we do pronounce it differently).

The regular past participle of the Spanish verb cocer is cocido, but it has an alternate irregular past participle cocho (from Latin coctus). Actually, in modern Spanish, cocinar is more apt to be used than cocer, and the word galleta is a more common word for "biscuit" than bizcocho, which has taken on various specialized meanings. I don't know why the "s" in "bis" turned into a "z", but in Latin American Spanish, it's pronounced the same as an "s" (Spanish has no voiced "zzz" sound).

The verb backen in German means "to bake", not "to cook". Notice that German, which is not a Latin-based ("Romance") language, doesn't use bis to mean "twice", instead simply using zwei, the German word for "two".

The greatest pleasure I get out of my study of foreign languages is in speaking them, largely when I travel. But I also love all of the connections they reveal. My native English is a Germanic language, from the west Germanic branch of the Indo-european language family. But although its grammar remains Germanic, it has absorbed a very large vocabulary from the Latin languages, either directly from Latin (during the Roman occupation, or by scholarly coinings), or, to an even greater extent, from French (in the centuries after the Norman conquest of 1066). Thus knowing French and German exposes a great deal about the origin of English words.

Consider "vinegar". It comes from the French vinaigre. It's made up of two parts: vin aigre, which simply means "sour wine". And of course, vinegar is exactly what wine turns into when it spoils.

While studying Spanish, my friend and coworker Jack Rich came across the Spanish verb ayunar. It means "to fast", in the sense of "not eating". He recalled a more common word that he had previously learned, desayuno, meaning "breakfast". Since the prefix des often has the meaning "un", he realized that the word desayuno, which refers to the first meal you have after not eating all night, simply means "un-fast". Jack thought, "I wonder if there's anything like that in Engl --- oh!!". For the first time, he realized that the English word "breakfast" means "break fast". Note 1

By the way, the same thing happened in French. The French verb jeûner means "to fast", and the French break their nightly fast first with a petit déjeuner ("little break-fast", a small "continental breakfast"), and then eventually with a déjeuner (lunch, the major breaking of the fast).

English has taken far fewer words from Spanish than from French, but an interesting one is "mosquito". It comes from mosca, which is the noun for a "fly" (the insect) in both Latin and Spanish. Following the rules of Spanish pronunciation, a "c" in front of an "a" is pronounced hard (like a k), so the word is pronounced "MOS-ka".

Take away the final "a" and replace it with the diminutive ending "ito", and you get "mos-KEY-to", meaning "little fly". However, following Spanish spelling rules, to maintain the "hard c" sound, you must replace the "c" with a "qu" (this happens quite routinely in Spanish). And that's where Spanish got mosquito, and we stole it, letter for letter.

Like English, French also took the word for this insect from Spanish. But pulled by the attraction of the French ending -tique, the final two consonant sounds gradually interchanged, a process called metathesis. I suspect the first vowel sound was influenced by the French word for fly, mouche. The net result was moustique, French for "mosquito". The English word "bird" is also a product of metathesis - the Old English word was "brid".

But the best word for "mosquito" is the Italian zanzara, an onomatopoeic word that mimics the buzzing sound made by these annoying insects.

There's an old story about a group of people bickering over which of their languages is the most beautiful. They decide to compare words for the same thing in their respective languages, and the English speaker starts with "butterfly", saying that he's always found it to be a very pretty and euphonious word. "Ah", says the Frenchman, "it can't compare with the French word for "butterfly", papillon, a truly smooth word which rolls easily off the tongue." To which the Spaniard says, "I prefer mariposa, myself." The Italian notes, "Italian is always the most musical of languages - you can't top farfalla."

To which the German retorts, "So vot's ze matter mit Schmetterling?" (said with a very grating "sch" sound).

FarfalleYou may recognize farfalle as the name of an Italian pasta, shown to the right. We generally call it bowtie pasta, but to the Italians, those will always be butterflies.

The various words for "butterfly" are very curious, in that they are completely unrelated. It's not surprising for the German word to be set apart (and not just for its rather harsh pronunciation), but words for the same thing in the Latin-based Romance languages are usually cognates. In the case of "butterfly", though, the words in these five different languages have nothing to do with one another.

When my friend and classmate Frank Model saw this item, he noted that most western languages seem to have a unique word for "butterfly", and he sent me this list:

English butterfly   Italian farfalla
German Schmetterling   Danish Sommerfugl
French papillon   Finnish perhonen
Spanish mariposa   Hungarian lepke
Portuguese borboleta   Dutch Vlinder

Blue Morpho (Frank Model)Frank knows a lot about butterflies, because he photographs them as a hobby. I don't know how he does it. Once, in Costa Rica, I chased a few Blue Morpho butterflies, but they never sat still long enough for me to take a picture. I also seem to recall that if they did alight, they promptly folded their wings, hiding the bright-blue dorsal surface, and exposing the drab underside. I couldn't get a good shot even though I was in a butterfly enclosure, where they were concentrated. The only picture I got of a Blue Morpho on that trip was of one that had gotten caught in a spider web, and it was half eaten by the spider. Yet Frank has many Blue Morpho pictures, like the one on the left. Click the next link to see Frank's beautiful butterfly pictures on Flickr.

Looking back over the random linguistic facts above, I thought to quote the brilliant Bertrand Russell, "There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge." Indeed, my memoirs, like me, are packed full of useless knowledge that has given me great pleasure. But in fact, in language learning, this sort of knowledge is not useless. Everything one learns about a word becomes a hook upon which you hang it in your memory.


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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted June 10, 2010
Updated November 18, 2010, to add link to Frank Model's butterfly photos

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   Jack Rich isn't the only Jack to notice that you can better understand a word by breaking it into its component parts. Consider the following, from Jack Handey:

Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Mankind. Basically, it's made up of two separate words - "mank" and "ind." What do these words mean? It's a mystery, and that's why so is mankind. (From Deeper Thoughts, © 1993 by Jack Handey.)

Jack was a coworker. Does that mean that he orked cows for a living?   [return to text]