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Salvador Dali  wild- eyed but eternally stylish in a pair of espadrilles.

What connects sirens, espadrilles and Sparta? This was the question left hanging at the end of class when I invited students to investigate these words through Online Etymology Dictionary for homework. The next morning students reviewed their information with others at their table groups. There were gasps of astonishment and laughter as to where one word had led them.  Terms like ‘attested ‘ and ‘roots’, peppered their talk and I heard comments : ‘Well, the Romans must have taken it from ancient Greece  because it was in Greek first’ and ‘No, you can dig back further, you can get to a Proto- Indo European root here.’

And what is the connection? It’s twisted, tangling ropes and fibres again! The question above allowed students to take a short plunge into the Online Etymology Dictionary and to follow the trail of clues. In their first etymological investigations, students grabbed at the immediate precursor to a word, the etymon just before the entry into English. Now, towards the end of the first trimester, they are beginning to understand how to read this rich resource and how to persevere through the information, to follow side-paths and to go deep into the past.

Siren , attested first as a serpent in 1340 (OED) then as the figures from Greek mythology in 1366 (OED). The word entered English via French and Latin but is of Greek origin. Its Greek root ‘seira’ denotes ‘cord, rope’ with a metaphoric suggestion of  sirens as entanglers and binders. This referred specifically to the sirens that Odysseus encountered as well as being applied more generally to any deceitful woman. Siren came to be used for a warning device that made listeners run away or duck for shelter in order to be be safe. So in the same word two opposite meanings – sirens that lure and entice and sirens that also signal danger –  another contronym! ( We’ve beginning a list: cleave, ravel, sanction).Three years ago a  previous class had investigated this word and turned their understandings into an animation: see here and here.   Sirens represented as either fishy or feathery hybrids, have no need for shoes, let alone a stylish pair of espadrilles. However, it’s ropes that tie the espadrille and the siren together .


Siren holding a fish from a ‘Theological miscellany including the Summa de vitiis’  composed after 1236 from Harley Manuscript 3244 , f 55. Read about the amazing Harley Manuscripts here.

Espadrille was a complete surprise to us all . Espadrille sounds exotic- it isn’t pronounced like a word that is native born or one that has settled in the language very long. It still carries its ties to foreign places and suggests an otherness. The espadrille as a shoe originated in the Pyrenees and as a word from Latin spartum where it denoted Spanish grass or broom, the plant from which the hemp soles were made, from Greek sparton- σπάρτον ,‘rope made from spartos’- σπάρτος, the Spanish Broom. It entered Provençal as espardillo and from there with its ropey soles stepped into French as espadrille and with a stylish quickstep into the English lexicon where its orthography has remained unchanged since 1882.


Making the coiled rope soles of the espadrille.

The name Sparta derived from Greek sparte and  refers to a “cord made from spartos” – the same grass or broom that soled the espadrille.  Greek sparte  ‘grew ‘from PIE *spr-to- which in turn is connected to the root *sper- (2) “to turn, twist”. Spiral too is of Greek roots, speira “a winding, a coil, twist, wreath, anything wound or coiled,” from PIE *sper-ya-, from the same base *sper- (2). The reference to Sparta is bound in the ‘cords laid as foundation markers for the city’ or as The Online Etymology Dictionary says, ‘the whole thing could be folk etymology’ (Online Etymology Dictionary).


Sartium Junceum (Spartium Hispanicum) or Spanish Broom from an engraving of 1620 by B. Besler, Vol. 2 ‘Ordo collectarum arborum et fruticum aestivalium’. 

Students, through this etymological romp, learned to:

  •  fossick and to follow a trail in etymological entries and  to revel in the tale to be discovered.
  • identify the date of attestation
  • identify the root
  • recognize the graphemes that surface in the present day orthography of the word.

When you wander through the entries in the Online Etymology Dictionary , unexpected pleasures await. We scrolled down the entries beneath Sparta,  to stumble upon the brilliant entry on laconic with the perfect, pithy example – no rope binding this word to the others, just a tie to Sparta and Spartan brevity and austerity. Read the entertaining entry here.

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

(Dylan Thomas, Notes on the Art of Poetry)

 Delight and oddity and light are there too for the discovering in Online Etymology Dictionary or on the Etymonline Page on Facebook . It’s Thomas’s excitement and exuberance for words that I hope my students experience in their etymological wanderings and wonderings as they scroll through this resource in pursuit of a word’s story.