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Five Spanish Words with a Surprising Origin

Creado por Virginia Orozco
Publish August 23, 2022

As life itself, everything has an origin. Evidently, languages cannot escape this either. Actually, if anything has a fascinating and surprising origin, it is language. 

 There is even a discipline just for that: “etymology”, which studies the origin of the words and their evolution in the meaning. The name may sound boring but it is definitely fascinating to know the origin of the words we use daily. So  if you’re learning Spanish, then some of the following list will surprise you and, some even may disgust you as well, but you’ll feel glad that in the end, you will say these Spanish words with a different perspective.

1. Aguacate (avocado):

The Spanish word for avocado “aguacate” comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, which surprisingly or not means… testicle! I know many of you must be wondering what is the possible relationship that an avocado has with testicles, and well, apparently the Aztecs assigned this name to this fruit (yes, it is as fruit) due to its similarity to male genitalia. Not only by the shape but by the way it hangs from the tree, and they always go two by two or more. Mischievous Aztecs.

2. Testigo (witness): 

Let’s start by saying to you, our Spanish learners that yes, this is another one about testicles, only that this time is quite literal. The word testigo comes from the old Iberian word testiguar, derived from the Latin testificare.

Testificare is composed of testis (witness) and facere (do). In the same manner, testículo (testicle) comes from Latin testiculus, composed of testis and the suffix culus, which is used as a diminutive. Therefore, the testicles are the little witnesses.

But why are the testicles little witnesses? Well, it is believed that its origin corresponds to the fact that the Romans swore to tell the truth by squeezing their testicles with their right hand, compromising such a sensitive part if they lied. It must have hurt to lie for the Romans.

3. Salario (salary):

It comes from the Latin salarium, which means payment with salt.  In the past, salt was used for crucial things, hence it was often described as “white gold”. For instance, it could be used as an antiseptic to heal wounds (sal > salus > salud (health)), to preserve food; and of course, as a payment method in Ancient Greece and Rome. 

Since the ancient Egyptian empire, workers were paid with salt, since it was used to preserve the food in times when refrigerators nor freezers existed. Later on, during the Roman Empire this payment method continued to be used and the name salarium was quickly adopted for what workers received at the end of the month. Surprisingly, we still call it salario today, with the particularity that we get money in order to buy salt.  Who would’ve thought? 

4. Trabajar (work):

Is working torture for you? Well, you’re absolutely right. Working is torture. Well, at least that’s how the Spanish word originated in Latin at least. Trabajar word comes from the vulgar Latin tripaliare, an instrument of torture made up of three wooden sticks used by Ancient Romans to punish slaves and thieves. 

In Ancient Rome the honorable ones didn’t work, because working and the most rudimentary productive activities were done by slaves and lower classes; the full life was one that focused on leisure, art and philosophy. I bet “laziness” was a virtue for them. 

5. Histeria (hysteria).

Histeria comes from the Greek word hyatera, which means útero (womb). The ancient Greeks, particularly the Greek doctor Hippocrates of Kos considered disease to be movements or vibrations of the female reproductive organs, and hysteria was the disease of the burning womb. In other words, it was an exclusive disease of women. (Wut?)

Until well into the 19th century, this belief was maintained and the treatment of hysteria had become a very accepted and serious practice (this treatment consisted of manual massages of the patient’s clitoris to produce orgasm). It is now known that hysteria is a psychological illness and that it has nothing to do with the gender of the sufferer.

Surprising, huh? Do you know any other surprising origin of Spanish words? Tell us in the comment section.

Virginia Orozco

Virginia Orozco

Content Creator

BA in Modern Languages and Political Scientist. Spanish-English-French Translator. Copywriter. Linguistics and Arts Enthusiast.

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