- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 18/10/2011
- etymology, Latin, literary translation, Spanish
I have just come across a thrillingly imaginative bit of etymological scholarship, and I wanted to summarise it briefly for the non-Spanish-speakers among my readership.
I was interested in the peninsular Spanish expression ‘(echar) un polvo’, which is broadly equivalent to ‘(to have) a shag’ in the UK or a ‘screw’ in the US. Literally, it means ‘to cast a dust’ (it sounds odd in Spanish too), hence my curiosity. I googled it and the top-ranked result was a blog entry on the classical etymology of the phrase (the same is not true of its anglo-saxon equivalents, needless to say).
It is an article by Gabriel Laguna, a classicist at the University of Córdoba. First, analysing the expression’s earliest appearances in dictionaries, he speculates that ‘polvo’, dust, first took on an obscene meaning around the middle of the Nineteenth Century. He goes on to reject as fanciful other attempts to explain the origin of the phrase (for example, that seminal fluid and dust are both white) and advances his own theory.
According to Professor Laguna, ‘echar un polvo’ is an echo of the famous sentence in the Catholic liturgy: ‘Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris‘. In the King James Bible this is rendered as ‘Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return‘, but the Spanish is ‘Recuerda, hombre, que eres polvo, y que al polvo regresarás‘. This is often paraphrased as ‘Polvo somos, del polvo venimos y en polvo nos convertiremos‘: ‘Dust we are, from dust we come, and into dust we turn’. Laguna argues that the clause ‘de polvo venimos’ suggests sex, in the sense that we come from, we have our origins in, the sexual act. In this way, via a sort of unconscious association, ‘polvo’ became a synonym for coitus.
He goes on to compare ‘polvo’ to the English ‘cock’, a previously innocuous word which has become unserviceable as a result of the obscene connotations it has taken on. The comments on the article are interesting: according to one man, the idea of throwing up dust in fact reflects a rural tradition of sex al fresco, much like the English ‘roll in the hay’, an origin which was obscured by urbanisation. Others advance a much more tenuous connection with snuff.
The best, though, is this little couplet that someone left (it is untranslatable, of course, but in light of the explanation above the meaning should be clear!):
Del polvo venimos y al polvo vamos…
y entre polvo y polvo, ¡qué bien lo pasamos!
From dust we come and to dust we go…
and between dust and dust, how well we spend our time!
Whether or not this etymology convinces you, I hope you will agree that it is a piece of superbly ambitious and insightful scholarship.