Sunday, 30 December 2012

Ice and a slice

'A slice of what? - of lemon, of course if you're a 20th or 21st century barkeeper in an English-speaking country. Not so in the Greek-speaking enclave on the Mediterranean coast of Gallia Transalpina, or the South of France as we say nowadays. There it would have been a τόμος (cf our 'atom' - 'that which can't be sliced') and it would have been a slice of cheese - OK, the 'ice' was a bit of a red herring, but you get the point: foods (and other things, but food is what I'm thinking about at the moment - food tends to weigh heavily on the mind [not to say the stomach] in certain households at this time of year) can get named after the shape they come in. And the French tomme is a case in point.

The shape they come in, hmm. It seems that cheese (not a staple of the early Roman diet) was imported from Germanic 'barbarians'; hence Eng. 'cheese', German käse ... etc on the Germanic side of the tree, but also Sp. queso, Portuguese queijo ... etc on the Romance side. But that last 'etc' doesn't include all the mainstream Romance languages. The Catalan is formatge, the Italian is formaggio, and the French is fromage (courtesy of that 'metathesis' that I've mentioned elsewhere). Where did they come from? (You might like to refer back to my first paragraph and think awhile. The key word is 'shape'....)

...Time's up. The Latin for 'shape' was forma, and - eschewing the punning bellum, with its irregular plural when it was the noun meaning 'war' (well not the irregular sort of irregular, just a plural that didn't end in -i or -ae or -es - the sort of thing that makes a foreign language easier to acquire) - the Vulgar Latin word to describe a form that we might describe as 'shapely' was FORMOSU(M). (I'm using the Vulgar Latin convention of giving what a classicist would  call 'the accusative case marker' in parentheses, as the nominative rarely had much influence on the Romance languages.) Bellum was not displaced throughout the Romance-speaking world, There are still beau (sometimes bel) and belle in French (and their many derivatives in English, 'beau', 'belle', 'beautiful' ... etc.), bell -a in Catalan, and bello -a in Italian. But in Portuguese there is formoso -a and in Spanish hermoso -a. (And that f/h thing, incidentally, is at the root of Ferdinand and Isabella's royal emblem - the fennel plant: Aragonese had a word starting with f and Castilian had an h for the initial letter of the word for 'fennel'. But that's a whole nother kettle of red herring.)  Provençal has a foot in both camps, with both bel and formós.

Cheese 'made in a mould' was CASEU(M) FORMATICU(M), and the shape became the noun in some parts of the Romance-speaking world - so fromage was interspersed with tomme.

More generally it could be said that things come to be known either by their shape or by an adjective that describes them - so one might go to 'the Orthopaedic' to have a cast taken off, punters bet every year on 'the National', cinemagoers go to the nearest 'multiscreen' and have a drink after the show at 'the local'. After your cheese you might have some fruit - and I'm not going to get into an argument about the order of courses at  a Roman feast: that 'after' was a literary device, dammit. The new-fangled import that was de rigueur in all the best Roman fruit bowls was an exotic fruit shaped a bit like an apple - imported from Persia. And it was the adjective (PERSICA) not the apples (MALA) that gave many Romance languages their name for this fruit. It's quite heavily disguised by the vagaries of French phonology in the word pêche, but it's more clearly visible in the Catalan préssec (there's that metathesis again) and in the Portuguese pêssego; the Italian pesca, similarly,  is fossilized evidence of the disappearance of the r, warned against in an early word-list:
W D Elcock, in The Romance Languages, says of this list:
We...incline towards the idea that the list was compiled by a [ed. third-century] schoolmaster, much as a teacher of English today might draw up a list of common errors in spelling culled from the exercises of his pupils; but in a Roman class-room, just as they would nowadays, many such errors had their origin in current pronunciation.
 That's from p. 29 of the first edition (as given in the link). At the time, the 'Roman' view was rather leading-edge. Previous scholars had favoured Carthage. And in the new edition (1992, I think 1975*, in fact) the Rome versus Carthage debate may have been settled. Next time I'm passing a decent library I'll check. (Maybe - I'm considering a New Year's resolution about not saying things like that.)

But in Spain they avoided the pessica/persica problem - having flirted with the Castilian prisco - and stuck with the MALA root, or possibly the Greek μήλον, with another word appended to describe the texture of the skin: melocotón, 'a cottony sort of fruit'.

Right. I must go and think about that resolution....

Update: 2013.01.31 *Went to a university library, and checked the details. Sadly, the book was out on loan.
Update 2013.07.15: 'Tempus', as my old maths master used to say as we neared the end of another lesson, 'has fugitted'. See below for the latest.
Update 2013.07.25: ‡Catalan should be in the 'foot in both camps' camp.  See the first comment.

Update: 2015.01.18.12:40 – Further thought on queso/queijo, in blue.

PS Looking again at this piece  – in the aftermath of a conversation I had yesterday with a Flemish-speaker about the derivation of the word flamenco [watch this blog... I hope... soon...] –  it's occurred to me to wonder why, among all these FORMATICUS-based Romance examples, it's only Spanish and Portuguese (and maybe some other Iberian dialects) that use the CASEUS bit†. It seems to me possible that this may have something to do with Spain's imperial links with the Netherlands (and nearby parts, which use the Flemish kas [Flemish transcriptions dodgy – for lack of Google Translate support].

Bonggg. So much for my thought.
Here's an extract from Meyer-Lübke's Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch:
I don't know what all those abbreviations mean (specifically tergest. and vegl.) But the others offer several counter-examples: Romanian, Italian, and Logudorese (spoken in part of Sardinia)
Update: 2018.03.23.18:10 – Deleted old footer.


  1. Ah, but the Catalan-Spanish duality goes well beyond "bell -a in Catalan" and "Spanish hermoso -a". We bilingual Spaniards must be a bit schizophrenic: Catalan does have the adjective "Formós/formosa", and Spanish also includes "Hermoso -a" in its vocab. So there...

    1. I stand corrected. I got my information from Elcock: The Rom. Languages. But I should have classed Catalan along with Provençal as having 'a foot in both camps'.

      Thanks for the correction.


    2. Afterthought: One of my favourite Portuguese authors is Eça de Queiroz, whose style is influenced by his wide literary knowledge. The Pg for 'bottle' is GARRAFA, but sometimes he uses the word BOTIGLIA - I've never met the word anywhere else though. Is there a meaning difference between "bell -a" and "formós/formosa"? Perhaps there's a nursery rhyme about a pretty ant!