Sunday, March 2, 2008

Words from Spanish: quixotic, picaro/picaresque & peon

This week's post is a follow-up (& further explication) of a few of the words from last week's list of Spanish-derived English words.

We all know the story of Don Quijote, right? Written by Miguel de Cervantes in Spain in the seventeenth century, Don Quijote de la Mancha tells the story of a low-ranking Spanish noble who, head filled with impractical ideas of being a gallant knight (having little to do, he spent most his time in his library, reading stories of their brave actions), decides to set out on an adventure of his own. Windmills become giants to be battled; farmhands become faithful squires; barbers' basins become prized helmets. This novel is a cultural legacy in Spain and a source of great pride for Spanish people. (My experience in Spain is that everyone knows and loves the story of Don Quijote -- but few have actually read the book.)

From the archaic spelling, Quixote, we've derived the word quixotic. Much like Sir Quixote, a quixotic person is one whose mind is filled with imaginative ideas, very loosely tied to reality, and with little heeding of practicality.

Speaking of novels, a picaresque novel describes the adventures of a person who is sometimes dishonest but easy to like. The Spanish word picaro means rogue or rascal, and the Spanish genre, called picaresco, developed and flourished in Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These novels depict a low-class rogue living by his wits, an anti-hero of sorts. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is sometimes considered a picaresque novel.

Lastly: the word peon in English comes directly from Spanish, peón, a word for an unskilled laborer, typically used to describe farmhands, or anyone performing a job that requires little skill and menial labor.

As we saw from the brief list in last week's post, Spanish's influence on English is large and wide-ranging; these words are barely a scratch on the surface.

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