Gaudí gaudy or gaudy Gaudí?

My wife and I are enjoying a long weekend in beautiful Barcelona, a city graced with the dreamy and daring architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Many like to claim that English gets its word gaudy thanks to the architect’s distinctive style. Gaudí looks and sounds like gaudy. Some may even characterize his works as gaudy. But this etymology is as fanciful as Gaudi’s buildings.

The adjective “gaudy” likely comes from the noun “gaudy,” an old term for an ornamental bead on the Catholic rosary. Image by Maureen Shryock, courtesy of


Gaudí was born in 1852. English has been using the adjective gaudy since the early 1500s. That takes care of this bit of folk etymology. But just as Gaudí’s structures are exuberant in shape, texture, and color, so the origin of gaudy enjoys its own “exuberant” origins.

A gaudy once named a larger ornamental bead on Catholic rosaries. This word (1434) is a variant or mistaken plural of gaud (1390), which also named a “trinket” or “bauble.” Ornamental beads lead to ornamental gewgaws, which lead to the adjective gaudy for something “excessively ornate.” This usage is attested by the late 16th century. Earlier in the century, gaudy signified “luxurious” fare but also something “full of trickery” – and such merry-making indeed points us to the deeper roots of the word.

Gaud, the prayer bead, ultimately seems to come from the Latin gaudium, “joy.” In the saying of the Rosary, gaudies marked the so-called Joyful Mysteries, or gaudia in Latin, a set of prayers associated with the early life of Jesus Christ. At the root of gaudium is gaudēre, “to rejoice” or “be merry.” Filtered through French, the -joice in rejoice also comes from gaudēre, as does joy, enjoy, and perhaps even the word jewel. Indo-European philologists root Latin’s gaudēre in *gau-, “to rejoice,” although the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes it carried the special sense of “to have religious fear or awe” – an experience some have before Gaudí’s work.

Gaudy is also featured in the archaic word gaudy-green, a “yellowish green” that gets its color from dye made out of the weld plant. This gaudy appears to come from the Old French gaude, meaning “weld,” but perhaps its bright, flashy color influenced the ostentation we associate with gaudy.

And as for the name Gaudí? The origin of the family name is unclear, but some think that it comes from the French gaudir, “to enjoy” – which is from the very same Latin root gaudēre. So, it turns out that Gaudí didn’t lend his name to gaudy, but that gaudy, in an etymological manner of speaking, lent its name to Gaudí. Now that’s whimsical.

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The travails of “travel”

Long security lines have been beleaguering travelers across America’s airports, making the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scramble to unlace its shoes, take out its laptop, and bin its personal affects. Travel can be quite the travail – all too painfully true, if we give the word travel an etymological screening.


Originally, travel was travail. They were the same word, both referring to “extremely hard labor” and “toil.” Travail is documented in the mid-13th century, wrought from the French travail, “suffering” or “painful effort.” (In English, travail was applied to childbirth by the end of the 1200s.) It doesn’t get any easier from here, though.

Romance-language philologists think French’s travail develops from the Late Latin *trepālium, literally “an instrument with three stakes.” The first part of this compound features trēs (“three”), the second part pālus (“stake”), which we also see in the pale of beyond the pale.  This trepālium may have been some sort of a torture device, inflicting its misery three stakes at a time. Extreme exertion can feel like torture, as the sense of trepālium apparently so developed.

Walter Skeat suggests an alternative origin for travail, though: the Latin *travāre, “to make or build with beams, pen, shackle, put an obstacle in one’s way, and so cause embarrassment and trouble,” as he glosses it. He cites a similar sense development in embarrass. Skeat then traces *travāre in Latin’s trabes, a “beam” or “piece of timber,” which, incidentally, he anchors in the very Indo-European root that ultimately yields the word torture.

Over the course of the 14th century, travail began to refer to going on a journey, which was a back-breaking undertaking in the Middle Ages. Travail changed its shape, form, and sense to arrive at the travel we know today – though, when it comes to modern airplane travel, it can feel like nothing has changed at all.

I think we now know why Frost really took the road less travelled by: He had TSA PreCheck. And that can make all the difference.

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Tico talk

I don’t usually have a taste for kitschy souvenirs, but in Costa Rica, whose beautiful lands my wife and I recently had the pleasure to visit, I couldn’t resist.

See, Costa Ricans – or Ticos, their more colloquial demonym – really know how to market to a very specific segment: tourists obsessed with etymology. Surely, I’m not alone.

My wife and I spent our last two nights in Costa Rica’s bustling capital, San José. We spent some time wandering its Mercado Central, almost as dense and labyrinthine as the lush and misty cloud forests we hiked just days before. Like the Grand Bazaar we wandered in Istanbul or the night markets in Bangkok, the Mercado Central vends its herbs, meats, household goods, clothing, Marian iconography, and casados to locals – and t-shirts, stuffed animals, keychains, jewelry, and knickknack carretas to tourists.

I tried to stay focused on my destination, Café Central, whose coffee was second only to the friendliness of its matronly baristas, but I was waylaid by a souvenir t-shirt:

It’s just not every day a souvenir boasts demonymy and etymology:

Tico t

As mentioned, Costa Ricans are popularly known as Ticos or Ticas. Spanish is lush with diminutive suffixes, such as –ita/-ito (e.g., casa > casita, perrocerrito). But Costa Ricans, apparently, have historically been fond of a different diminutive: –ico/-ica or –tico/-tica, depending on the word. So fond, in fact, that visitors to the country noted it in their speech and thusly nicknamed them. The OED records Tico as chiefly US slang and first attests in 1905. Ticos, as far as I can tell, at some point claimed it as their own.

While I didn’t notice its usage in Tico talk, I did see it employed in a variety of brand names: Teletica, Costa Rica’s first TV company, uses it, for instance. The more formal demonym, which I spotted on official buildings as we drove through the country, is costarricense.

After a memorable cup of coffee at Café Central, we decided to continue winding our away around San José. I opted out of a Tico t; I’d rather spend my remaining colónes on local food, alcohol, and coffee, as well as a few books in Spanish (Hamlet and Malkiel’s Etymology) and a few notebooks.

But diminutives, we should remember, don’t just express smallness; they can also communicate affection.

On our way back to our hotel, my wife had still had a few items she wanted to find for some family members. So, back at the Mercado Central, I enjoyed a coffee at a soda while she perused a few stalls. At one point, she asked me which color of a Tico t-shirt I thought her “nephew” would prefer. I pointed to the blue one.

Like I said, I’m not usually one for kitschy souvenirs, but, in no small part to the lovely culture and climes of Costa Rica, I’ll gladly wear this camiseta. Or should I say camisetica?

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One does not need an excuse to talk about sloths. These slow-moving tree-dwellers wear a goofy smile that says, “Live in the moment.” That or they are silently – joyously – breaking wind.

But I do have a reason, this post. My wife and I are jaunting down to Costa Rica. Move aside, quetzal: It’s the sloth we’re eager to spot. (I imagine they’re not hard to miss.)

Like their cousin, the anteater, the sloth has an apt appellation, despite the sinful associations that tarnishes their otherwise good name.

I find it interesting,  though, that sloths are called so called. Very often, ecologically distinct animals like the sloth, now only found in Central and South America, bear their indigenous names. Like the quetzal, toucan, macaw – or, as I’ve discussed in another travel-inspired posts, the Quechuan condor, llama, and puma.

So, what’s up with sloth? Let’s have a quick look at its etymology.

A brown-throated three-toed sloth. Image by Stefan Laube from Wikimedia Commons.


For the name of the animal, the Oxford English Dictionary first spots sloth in Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage.  (You might recall Purchas, whose travel writings are of great historical and lexical importance, from my posts on victim and tornado.) Concerning the sloth, Purchas notes: “The Spaniards call it…the light dog. The Portugals Sloth. The Indians, Hay.” Sloth appears to be a translation of the Portuguese preguiça, from the Latin pigritia, meaning “laziness.” Related is the Spanish perezoso.

Meaning “laziness,” sloth has been long been crawling up the tree of English. The OED cites it in the late 1100s. By the middle of the 1300s, sloth reached its personification as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This sloth translates the Latin acedia and Greek ἀκηδία. These classical words suggest a spiritual apathy, which I don’t think the smiling sloth is guilty of. A little later, sloth came upon “slowness.”

The word sloth pulls a fast one, etymologically speaking: It joins slow and the noun-forming suffix –th, seen in other, words like stealth and strength (one of which definitely applies to the sloth). Sloth, then, is really just slowth; spelling and vowel changes yield its modern form. This formation surfaces in early Middle English, replacing the Old English slǽwð. In the record, the latter, found as early as the late 800s, clings on as sleuth, no relation to detectives.

From the Germanic-rooted, Old English sláw, slow is also very old in the language, when it originally referred to dullness of wits, not motion. Slow in terms of speed was actually slower to the scene.

Sloth is an epithet not only hung on only our tardigrade edentate, though: the collective term for a group of bears is sloth.

Up to this point, I’ve been a bit lazy myself. Sloths are known by native names, especially down in Brazil, where sloths there are known by the Tupi as ai, which Purchas seems to have documented as hay. Ai imitates the animal’s high-pitched cry – which imitates, too, I hope, our squeal of joy when we get to see a sloth. Not to be confused, of course, with the cry of “Hey, you guys!” in The Goonies’ very own Sloth.

The Mashed Radish will be back in March. Forgive my idleness while I’m away.

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