Deze pagina in het Nederlands    Later addition, 17 March 2002

Remembering words, and etymology

When learning a foreign language, I like to use a dictionary that in addition to meanings also gives some etymological information. Even if I don't try nor intend to remember the etymology, this historical background often helps me to remember the word and its meaning, because the connections and associations with things I already know make that easier.

There was a striking example last year: in a Portuguese book I was reading, written by a Portuguese writer who has lived in the Netherlands since the nineteen fifties, he says about Amsterdam (page 89):
"[...] certo é que ela agasalha."
(certo = certain, é = is, que = that, ela = she, i.e. "a cidade", the city; agasalha: haven't the slightest idea).
So I looked up that word, and it means something like: welcome warmly, be hospitable to. So far, so good. I’d have forgotten the word right after that, because once is not enough to remember it.

But the Porto Editora dictionary in which I looked it up also gives etymologic info. The Portuguese word comes from Latin: agasalho < agasalhar < Latim ad-gasaliare < Gothic gasalja = companheiro - companion.

Although I don't know a single word of the long-extinct Gothic language (it's of the East-Germanic language family), "gasalja" is easy to recognize for me: my very own Dutch language has "gezel" (now old-fashioned, but still recognizable; meaning: companion, mate, formerly also: apprentice, craftsman), metgezel (companion), gezelschap (company), and the famous, and supposedly untranslatable "gezellig" (cosy, having a pleasant atmosphere, being with people you like).

So although this Portuguese word certainly isn't derived from a Dutch word, it is related to it, via the common Germanic ancestor that Dutch (and German, and English!) share with Gothic. That, combined with explaining this to you now, helps me to never forget the word. And that is something I would never have achieved by looking it up and just seeing the meaning.

Waar die andere God woont The author is J. Rentes de Carvalho, the book is called "Com os holandeses" (literal meaning: "With the Dutch").
The Dutch translation bears the title "Waar die andere God woont" (literal meaning: "Where that other God lives") (4th edition 1982 Amsterdam, Arbeiderspers, 1st edition 1972, Meulenhoff). The translation is by August Willemsen, except for the last chapter, which like most of his books was translated by Harrie Lemmens.
Portugal, Een gids voor vrienden, J. Rentes de Carvalho

Mr. Rentes de Carvalho himself knows Dutch quite well, but understandably prefers to write in his own language Portuguese. He has all his books translated into Dutch and then published. Portuguese editions are often hard to obtain, or sometimes not available at all.

Rentes de Carvalho's most famous non-literary work is the travel guide "Portugal, een gids voor vrienden". The Dutch edition mentions as the Portuguese title "Portugal, um guia para amigos" (which literally means the same as the Dutch title in this case), but that book I have never laid eyes on. I tried to buy it once in a bookstore in Porto, and they looked it up for me in the catalogue, but it wasn't available.

Lissabon He also wrote a travel guide about Lisbon.

It appears that the word agasalhar is not very common in this sense, even though of course a literary writer has the freedom to use it anyway. Someone from Brazil wrote to me:

It had never occurred to me, because the verb "agasalhar" and the noun "agasalho" are not commonly used with this sense. Brazilian dictionaries bring this meaning in the first place too, but the meaning I've always used this word and heard it being used is no. 9 in Aurélio:
9. Cobrir-se, abafar-se: "Vestia um modesto vestido de seda, e agasalhava-se em uma capa de martas." (Camilo Castelo Branco, A Mulher Fatal, p. 97.)
10. Resguardar-se do mau tempo. [Var. aferética: gasalhar.]
I did not know that this usage was common in Portugal.

My (bad?) translation of the Portuguese quotations:
9. Cover oneself, wrap oneself in, keep oneself warm: "She dressed herself in modest silk, with a marter fur coat on top of that." (Camilo Castelo Branco, The femme fatale, p. 97.)
10. Protect oneself against bad weather. [aphaeretic variant: gasalhar.]

But even in Portugal this sense is not common, because someone from Portugal told me that the Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa Contemporânea says it is: "P. Us.", or "Pouco Usado", "little used".

Later addition, 17 March 2002

Today, while reading this text about the Portuguese singer Camané I again encountered a Portuguese word that stems from Gothic: sacar = to draw out, extract. It is a loan from Gothic "sakan", which meant "plead". It is easy to see that it is cognate with Dutch "zaak", the oldest meaning of which, according to the WNT (Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal - a historic dictionary of Dutch) is indeed that of "lawsuit", which fits well to the judicial word "plead". The Dutch word "zoeken" (= look for, search, seek) is cognate, as the WNT (used to be published on CD-ROM by AND) explains. (If you can read Dutch, you may wish to read the Dutch version, in which I quote the WNT).

Confer the cognate English words "to seek", and "sake" as in the expression "for God's sake".

It is interesting that both "zaak" and "ding" (also in German: "die Sache", "das Ding"), just like English "thing" of course, can now have a very general sense, in which they can refer to just about anything, while originally they are from a judicial background: Dutch "ding" is related to "(kort) geding" (lawsuit; summary proceedings), "in het geding zijn" (to be at issue), "bedingen" (stipulate), "dingen naar" (contend for), and to the name of the Icelandic parliament which even today is called Alþingi. It used to be mainly, or also, a deliberative assembly, a court.