Category Archives: etymology

Does the term ‘Latino’ mean anything?

It is really sad and shameful to hear, or read that people who should know better – especially in the media – still insist on using the term “Latino” when referring to Latin Americans. This term is not only culturally inappropriate, but it also has the ugly undertones of a racist profiling of people.

The term “Latino” does not mean anything. I have written a post here some time ago, in which I list some reasons explaining why people, in particular journalists and broadcasters should stop using this term.

Whether we like or not the real name for the people from any country of Latin America is simply: LATIN AMERICANS.

Some thoughts about the origins and meanings of the term bizarro

Finding out about the origin and meanings of words is one of the areas of language study that I enjoy most, mainly because every time I analyze a particular term, I achieve a better knowledge about its hidden aspects. This also provides me with a better understanding of the nature of language in general. A friend of mine asked me last week if I could provide him with some information about the etymology and meanings of the Spanish term bizarro compared with its English counterpart bizarre.

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the word bizarre is an adjective used in English with the meanings of
singular in appearance, style or general character; whimsically strange; odd.
It says that the term comes from the Spanish bizarro (meaning brave) and that this Castilian word in turn comes from the Basque bizar (meaning beard).

On the other hand, the Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado dictionary, says that the Spanish adjective bizarro comes from the Italian bizzarro (meaning singular). It’s mainly used in Spanish with the meanings of brave, chivalrous, generous, and splendid. This source warns that is inappropriate to use this term in Spanish with the meanings of extravagant, fantastic or capricious.

An online search for the word bizarro at The Royal Spanish Language Academy website gave a similar definition to the one found above. It still says that the word originated from the Italian bizzarro, but with the meaning of irascible.

How the word bizarre came to adopt its meanings in English is a mystery to me. From the examination here so far it seems that English adopted the Spanish word structure and the Italian meaning (i.e. singular). However, it seems very curious to me that the word bizarro is defined in the Spanish dictionary as coming from Italian whereas the English one attributes it to Basque.

If the terms bizarro and bizarre come from Basque, the most logical meaning for both Spanish and English words, would simply be barba (Spanish for beard) and beard, respectively, and they would only be used as nouns. How Italian came to use bizzarro, is also open to investigation.

Regarding the words’ meanings in Spanish, it’s quite difficult to ascertain wether they are based on the Basque or Italian terms.

It may be that the Italian usage of this word with the meaning of singular may have influenced the way the Spanish and English terms are used.

PS. I searched for the word bizarro on the internet and found that there is also a fictional character named Bizarro!

The terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Latino Spanish’

The Spanish language term latino (‘Latino‘) has been used and abused for quite a while. Words like these can become widely popular and used very frequently, in most cases without the users making a little effort to find out about the true nature of such terms.

The word latino is used in Spanish as a short form of latinoamericano - a Latin American – i.e. a person from a Latin American country. Thus, in Spanish the term is used in a correct manner. However, the usage of this term in English is incorrect as there is a proper translation for the word latino into this language: Latin. In any case whenever there is a need to refer to the people from Latin America is more appropriate to name them by their own nationalities: Mexican, Brazilian, Chilean, Costa Rican, etc, or collectively as Latin Americans.

The term Latin American is appropriately used for distinguishing the people from the New World as not coming from Anglo America. The term is properly used to relate to this cultural aspect. Latin American is a term that has come to mean someone who is non Anglo American, and is therefore quite appropriately used to cover anyone who comes from a Latin American country independently of what language they speak.

Referring to Spanish speaking people from Spanish speaking countries of Latin America as ‘Hispanics’ is not only wrong and inappropriate – it hardly means anything at all – it’s better to use always the term Latin American as it’s more meaningful and culturally appropriate.

The term Latino – as used quite often in English and applied to language or people – is wrong, inappropriate and lacking in real meaning and because of this, its usage should be avoided.

Labeling any perceived type of language as ‘Latino Spanish’ or even Latin Spanish doesn’t mean anything, as the name for the Spanish from the New World is American Spanish.  Misleading labels lack academic validity. Thus the name American Spanish must be used when referring to the varieties of this language as coming from the American continent.

‘I love chocolate’ …I know that, but do you know about the origin of the word chocolate?

In my professional teaching experience it’s very common to find out that many students are often unaware about lots of the aspects relating to the nature of the Spanish language vocabulary when they start their learning process.

For example, they often find it surprising that a Spanish word like chocolate or tomate comes from Pre-Columbian languages. Most of them tend to assume that terms like these are naturally derived from English words; so when I explain to them that these structures come from Native American languages they take it as a very new fact to them.

All the native tongues from the American continent – either dead or still in current use – have made an outstanding contribution to the enrichment of the Spanish language. There is a vast amount of words which have already been officially included into Spanish dictionaries; however, there still are an even larger amount of them which are still waiting to be incorporated into such dictionaries.

These language structures are commonly referred to as Americanisms. All these terms come mainly from Amerind (or Pre-Columbian) languages, which have found a path into spoken and written varieties of Spanish and are generally used by native Spanish speakers in their daily language. Because of this factor, they must be included into dictionaries as a matter of fact.

What it really matters from the linguistic perspective it’s that the terms to which we are making reference here, are vernacular items belonging to the lexicon of a regional or national group of native Spanish speakers; thus there is no need to apply other considerations in order for them to be included into any particular type of dictionary which may be released by a publishing house or for the words to be admitted by a Spanish language academy.

The main purpose of any language dictionary is to provide a complete list of all the words which are actually used by any sizeable amount of its speakers.

The word ‘resiliencia’ came to Spanish via English

Until today I didn’t know that the word ‘resiliencia’ was used in Spanish. I have always used resilience or resilient as terms fully associated with the English language. Then today I received in my mailbox an email from ‘La Palabra del Día’ (, in which as usual for this excellent service, it provides a very thorough explanation about the etymology of this word.

According to La Palabra del Día, the word resiliencia is not listed in Spanish dictionaries but it says that it’s a term widely used in physics and the social sciences. All of these aspects are new to me!

A big surprise was to find out – although I suspected it – that the word resiliencia and its English cousins (i.e. cognates) like resilience or resilient all originated from Latin. However, the biggest surprise was to know that the word in reference here came to Spanish via the English language.

It was very interesting to know that resiliencia didn’t arrive into Spanish from Latin; that it wasn’t a vernacular Spanish term as I’d expected it to be, if I followed the logic that Spanish is a language almost completely derived from Latin. The analysis of this word explains that resiliencia in its English equivalents was first used in this tongue before being transferred to Spanish, a language derived from the source that gave origin to this term!

The people behind La Palabra del Día at must be congratulated for maintaining this very excellent service for the study of Spanish, which makes the understanding of the deeper meanings of words a fascinating and intellectually challenging task.

It’s also important to note here, that this word in spite of its etymological roots – i.e. that of being so closely associated with the intrinsic nature of Spanish – and of its practical usage in contributing to the enrichment of this language, has not yet been incorporated into the dictionaries as pointed out by La Palabra del Día.

The word resiliencia is not an isolated case, there are thousands and thousands of words, especially of Americanisms (words vernacular to Hispanic America) which for very convoluted reasoning from language academies, find their particular paths of inclusion into Spanish language dictionaries, to be a very difficult and bureaucratic process. But enough of this, I’ll add more to this subject in a future post.

Below I reproduce the text found in La Palabra del Día.


Esta palabra no se encuentra en los diccionarios castellanos, aunque es muy usada en la Física y en las ciencias sociales. El vocablo nos llegó desde el inglés resilience para expresar la capacidad de un material de recuperar su forma original después de haber sido sometido a altas presiones; en esa acepción, equivale a la cantidad energía que un material es capaz de almacenar cuando la presión lo obliga a reducir su volumen, y se expresa en julios por metro cúbico.

El psiquiatra infantil Michael Rutter (1970) y el neurólogo, psiquiatra y etólogo francés contemporáneo Boris Cyrulnik, inspirados en el concepto físico, introdujeron el término a la Psicología para denominar la capacidad de las personas de superar tragedias o acontecimientos fuertemente traumáticos.

Cyrulnik, cuyos padres judíos fueron asesinados por los nazis, estudió la capacidad de recuperación de los sobrevivientes de los campos de concentración y de niños criados en orfanatos. Resiliencia es una de esas palabras de origen latín que, curiosamente, nos han llegado a través del inglés, en este caso, del vocablo resilience, que a su vez se derivó del latín resilio, -ire, (saltar hacia atrás, volver de un salto) compuesta a su vez por el prefijo re- y el verbo salire (saltar).

A Spanish speaking gentleman doesn’t need a horse

The Spanish word caballero derives from Late Latin caballarius, (horse groom) which in turn comes from Latin caballus (horse), according to The Free Dictionary. Whenever words like this are encountered in my Spanish classes, students find it very curious and amusing to know what the words actually mean.

Caballero in its more widely used modern meaning, gentleman, has nothing to do with caballo – Spanish for horse – judging by its original meanings. How the word acquired the meaning of gentleman, may be related to the fact that owning a horse was a status symbol in medieval times. Other than that, the word doesn’t have any relation to the level of gentleman ness that a man might possess.

In any case, if anything, a caballero may be more suitable labeled ‘cochero’,’ autero’ or ‘carrero’ (derived respectively from the Spanish words coche, auto and carro, all meaning car in English) if we wanted to update the term, as these days most men own cars more often than horses.

Maybe the term caballero should be more equated to ‘hombre gentil’ (gentleman), which is the most appropriate meaning of caballero in ordinary Spanish usage.

The usefulness of etymology in the study of Spanish


During my many years of teaching Spanish to students from all walks of life in Melbourne, I have always stressed to them the great benefit that is gained for fast and effective language learning by knowing about the origin of words. This involves finding out where words come from; why they are used in the way they are or why they are written or pronounced in a particular manner. Dealing with the study of the origin of words in a language is the role of etymology – the branch of linguistics that in general terms studies the origin of words – put in a better way, etymology describes the historical ‘résumé’ of any particular word.

By studying a language with an etymological focus it’s possible to discover the deep roots of the word structure(s) and meanings. When students start to know more about the historic changes experienced by words, they may be able and encouraged to learn more effectively and rewardingly all the other aspects relating to the language they are studying. Moreover, being knowledgeable about the intrinsic nature of words can facilitate faster progress in the development of their oral and written skills.

To know about the origin of any particular word in Spanish, students can consult an etymological dictionary. However, finding that kind of dictionaries it’s not an easy task. Therefore, the more practical way to search for the etymology of a word is through the internet. My favorite website for my online consultations is at its excellent ‘Origen de las palabras’ page. There is a free subscription at to receive the etymology of a word at random periodically.

I find knowing the origin of words a very fascinating issue from both the professional and personal levels. Thus the website in mention has become almost a daily favorite of mine. I searched at that website for the word ‘España’Spain, a very special word considering that it is the base for the formation of ‘Español’, the main name of the Spanish language in Spanish. It was very illustrating to know that ‘España’, has a very colorful and interesting origin. tells us that this word in relation to its written form evolved from the Greek Spanía and Hispanía to the Latin Hispania and that these three words come from the Punic Isephanim. It explains that the Spain may also be derived from the Celtic span or even the Hebrew xaphano, among others, until it reached the present name, ‘España’.

In regard to the historic meaning for this word the website tells us that Isephanim, one of the most recognized words thought to have given origin to the name of Spain in Punic – the language spoken by the ancient Phoenicians in Carthage – meant ‘the island of the rabbits or the coast of the rabbits’, as the Phoenicians were in Andalucía more than 3000 years ago and found that rabbits were a very abundant kind of animal there. It also tells us that because of this meaning the Romans of the times of Emperor Hadrian represented Spain – Hispania – on their coins, as a sitting lady with a rabbit posing at her feet. This is reading of the most stimulating kind!

For a student interested in learning not just the basics, but quite a lot about the origin and meaning of many Spanish words like ‘España’ there is not a better website than Their word analyses are generally in depth; which no doubt can stimulate the eager learner to wish for more and more! Students need to have an upper intermediate or advanced level of Spanish language proficiency in order to have a proper understanding of the etymological definitions given there, since it is a Spanish language website. Knowing the original structures of the Spanish words can be of enormous help not only in the study of Spanish, but also of English and all Indo Europeans languages as they share many structural features.

Have you found the etymology of any particular word and how useful was website for you?


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