oil and vinegar

While building my Spanish vocabulary, I often establish words in my memory by connecting them to similar words in other languages. I lean most heavily on English, but also think about other words in Spanish, French, as well as Tagalog, Latin, and Greek. There are so many examples: vinagre is clearly related to English (vinegar) as well as French (vinaigre), being derived from Latin (vinum acer) — wine gone sour.
However, I occasionally run into false friends — words that appear similar but have different meanings: embarazada means pregnant (not embarrassed, which is avergonzado)decepcionado means disappointed (not deceptive, which is engañoso). Some false friends are also false cognates — words that appear the same but have different etymological origins.

Aceite is both false friend and false cognate. On first meeting the word, I expected it to mean something sour: acid, acrid, acetic. When teaching chemistry, in the back of my mind I sometimes think about the strangeness of a molecule having the name “acetic acid” — it’s a duplication like “heat transfer” (heat already being a transfer of energy), “ATM machine” (M already standing for machine), or “PIN number” (N already standing for number). For a while I thought “Potomac River” also involved a strange duplication, but the place name (Patawomeck) in Algonquian is unrelated to the word for river (ποταμός or “potamós”) in Greek.

Acetic acid

Aceite is a very confusing false friend, because it is the Spanish word for oil, not for vinegar. Oil and vinegar are culinary opposites!

How can this be? I had expected the Spanish word for oil would look something like English or French. Trying to explain this anomaly to myself, I initially speculated aceite might refer to the sharp peppery overtones of high-quality olive oil. But the truth can be found in its etymology:

AceiteAceite comes from Arabic, not Latin. The word is a reflection of the tapestry of cultures that have inhabited the landscape of Spain. Our family witnessed this in the Muslim influence on architecture during our visit to Andalusia (Andalucía) two years ago.

However, the adoption of this particular Arabic word into Spanish doesn’t make complete sense to me. After all, Iberia was part of the Roman Empire; some olive trees in Spain are two thousand years old, which predates the Muslim era by centuries. For many generations, the people living there harvested olives and consumed the oil, presumably referring to this central foodstuff in Vulgar Latin or Latin (oleum) — a word that has spread all around the region to be adopted by English (oil), French (huile), Italian (olio), Portuguese (óleo), Romanian (ulei), and German (Öl).

I could understand if the people had taken up “oleum” and “azeyte” as synonyms for oil, or differentiated between the words depending on circumstances. For example, in English we use Anglo-Saxon words for animals (steer and cow, sheep, chicken, pig) and Norman French words for food (beef viz. boeuf, mutton viz. mouton, poultry viz. poulet, pork viz. porc). And in Tagalog there are counting numbers used for most situations, but Spanish-derived counting numbers are used to tell time, which I suppose tells us something about the Filipino relationship to time before (as well as after) colonization.

However, instead of aceite being introduced as a parallel word for oil, it somehow completely supplanted “oleum”. I still have questions — I always have questions.


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