Thursday, March 11, 2010
Insignificant Linguistics Mystery: Quizás
The other day the word 'quizás' came up at my office. It means 'maybe' in Spanish. The 'z' is pronounced lightly, like an 's' in Spanish. I tricked someone into letting me think aloud about where the word might come from. This is that story.
Quizás is 1/3rd of the repetitive title of the famous Nat King Cole song, "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás." This song is remarkable for two reasons. First of all, Nat King Cole does not speak Spanish, he enunciates Spanish. It's a hilarious song to listen to because every single syllable is brought into the spotlight, when it should really be rushed past as a schwa. "es-tas pear-dee-en-dow ell tee-emm-po, pain-san-do, pain-san-do." Secondly, I first knew about this song in English, 'Perhaps,' as sung by Cake. The lyrics are similar, but the Spanish one seems a little simplified. That phonetic line above is translated as "You are losing time, thinking, thinking." In English that part is "If you can't make your mind up, we'll never get started." Anyway, I like listening to the Cake song, and making fun of the NKC (do people say that?) version.
So the word. At the time I was thinking it was either directly from Latin (because it looks like quiddity: 'whatness'), or Basque from the Latin, because it reminds me so much of 'izquierda' and 'zurda' which are two fantastic Basque loan words meaning 'directional left' and 'left-handed,' respectively. These words were brought in to Spanish because the Latin offering for talking about things on the left is 'sinister' which brings with it evil suspicious untrustworthy connotations that are not necessary when just trying to give directions. (The word for right is 'derecha,' very close to it's Latin 'directus.')
So I was hoping 'quizás' would also be in that fun category of 'Basque loan words' and I came home and looked through the index of Ralph Penny's excellent book "The History of the Spanish Language." I've done several presentations in Spanish classes about the history of Spanish, and Penny's book is my number one resource for detail and examples of how every little word got into Spanish.
Quizás is not listed in the index. :(
So this morning, I decided to try the internet. I don't have any go-to Spanish etymology websites (unlike English where I prefer etymonline and wordnik) so I just googled "Spanish etymology quizás." It turns out that Wiktionary pages for Spanish words give the word origin when they can. Awesome. It says there that 'quizás' comes from 'quizá' which comes from the two-word Latin phrase, "qui sapit' meaning "who knows?"
Now having learned the real story, I don't feel bad for not guessing it. Over time, naturally lazy tongues have eroded away the back of the word, so the clues to the common root 'saber' in Spanish or 'sapere' in Latin, is gone, and the 'qui' at the beginning did not lead me to focusing on a 'someone,' just that it was ultimately from Latin.