Spaniards, Italians and Arabs, oh my!

The collection of foodstuffs living permanently on our dining room table is growing. The main reason for this has to do with the layout of this year’s apartment. It’s a long, long walk from where the food is prepared down to the only reasonable place we can gather and sit down together to eat.* Once we get all the eatables, drinkables, dishes, and utensils to the table, we don’t relish the prospect of more trips to the kitchen for last-minute items we’ve forgotten.

So anything we might possibly need during the course of a meal has begun to gather in the center of the table. In the crowd you’ll find salt and pepper, hot sauce, mustard, even a little container of brown sugar in case we’re having oatmeal for breakfast. And there are bottles of Spanish olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar† for salad.

Because they’ve been in the center of the table for a long time, I’ve read their labels repeatedly. When you read all the text (you can skip the fine print), do you notice anything about them?

The first thing that strikes me is the interesting juxtaposition of aceto and aceite. But wait–aceto is vinegar in Italiano, and aceite is oil in Castellano. Oil and vinegar are famous for not mixing, yet they seem to be quite chummy here–how did this happen?

Let’s begin from the vinegar side, and the Italian aceto: the Latin for vinegar is acetum, more properly vinum acetum, wine turned sour. On the Spanish side of things, vinagre includes the wine part, vino, plus the sour part, agreagrio means sour, tart or bitter.

Over on the oil side, the Spanish aceite de oliva, oil of olive, isn’t related to the aceto of the Italian vinegar. It turns out to be one of many words that show up during the Arabic period in Spanish history. Aceite comes from the Arabic az-zayt (الزيت‎), meaning oil. We’ve talked about false friends before (here and here)–they look alike, but that’s deceptive–they come from different neighborhoods.

Before leaving aceite de oliva, let me just put this in–knowing that the phrase means oil of olive, and that aceite means oil, you’d be forgiven for assuming that oliva is the word commonly used for olive in Spanish. You’d be forgiven, but you’d be wrong–olive is aceituna, again from the Arabic, this time az-zaytun (الزيتون‎). How’s that for confusing?

Olivo is the Spanish for olive tree, like this one in the Turia garden.

*I know that people are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental costs of having food travel long distances before it is consumed (grapes flown in from Chile, etc.). If we wanted to calculate the distance traveled by our food in our current setting, perhaps we should add the many meters from our distant kitchen to our plates. We could solve this problem by knocking a strategically placed hole in the wall at the far end of the kitchen, forming a pass-through into the dining area, but I can’t imagine that going over well with our landlords, and we’re interested in getting our security deposit back.


†The English ingredient list includes “concentrated grape must,” and the marketing description above calls those “mostos de alta calidad,” or musts of high quality. This whole post has been about how things that sound alike might not be related, but from what I can tell, this must is in fact related to the musty that has to do with the way an unaired room can smell. If you’re an etymology whiz and have info for or against, or otherwise have expertise with grape musts of alta calidad, let me know.
[images: El Guapo]

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