A fine feast for refined readers

Four hundred years ago was published Sebastián de Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, the first monumental Spanish thesaurus and etymological dictionary. Its modern edition was prepared for this anniversary by Ignacio Arellano and Rafael Zafra in the Spanish Golden Age research group at the University of Navarra. Studiolum also participated in this edition of historical importance, not only by preparing the DVD version enclosed with the volume (and also available separately of it), but with the revision of the Latin and Greek parts of the encyclopedia as well. And since Covarrubias’ hobby-horse was the kinship of the Spanish tongue with the holiest Hebrew language of the Bible, so the volume abounds in Hebrew terms, which were revised by Río Wang’s co-author Két Sheng / George Sajo (Kopenhagen), who is currently writing his doctoral thesis on the Hebrew etymologies of Covarrubias. This weekend, in El País’ weekly literary supplement Alberto Blecua, the director of the Spanish Royal Academy commemorated the fourth centenary of the book, also mentioning with appreciation the edition prepared with our collaboration. Here below we translate his essay.

Portrait of Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco on the frontispiece of his main work, the Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (1611). From the DVD edition by Studiolum

The Spanish-Latin Vocabulario by Elio Antonio de Nebrija, published in the late fifteenth century, tersely explained the meaning of Spanish words through their Latin equivalents. This approach has been adopted also in our current dictionaries which nowadays explain in Spanish the meanings and use of the words in our language.

There are other dictionaries, which focus not on what words mean or in which situations they are used, but on the reasons why. This is what we call etymological or historical dictionaries. This was the way chosen by Nebrija’s contemporary author Alonso de Palecia, and this was continued two centuries later, although in a much more spectacular way, by Sebastián de Covarrubias in his Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (Thesaurus of the Castilian or Spanish language, 1611), of whose publication we celebrate this year the fourth centenary.

To delve into the meaning of words, Covarrubias first examined their etymology (obviously strongly supported by his fertile imagination), then something which has been shunned in modern dictionaries: the encyclopedic explanation of reality (in many cases this is also very colorful), and finally the relationships between the words of one family. Now I want to highlight the importance of this work only through the examination of two features: first, its words incorporated in the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, and second, the information provided by it to understand our classical texts.

The dictionary of the Spanish Academy for example defines the word fregadero ‘sink, washing-up bowl’ as a furniture used to wash up dishes. A second meaning of the word, referring to the stack of dishes to be washed up, has by now virtually disappeared. This definition, which has some relation to that of Covarrubias, significantly reduces the more complex reality within the frames of which the Tesoro interpreted the word. Covarrubias derived it “from what is scrubbed” (fregar), that is, “dishes, bowls, pans and other vessels on the table cover and on the plate-rack”. On the other hand, Covarrubias’ article also includes other words belonging to the same family, such as fregona ‘woman washing dishes’, “the maid doing service in the kitchen among the pots and plates, called platerillas by Lope de Rueda”, or refregón ‘rubbing’: “touching something while passing by, such as when someone passing by the wall, touches it and his coat will be plastered”, or even refriega ‘skirmish’: “quarrel, clash of some people with others”. Through the relationships between the members of the family he is also able to explain such idioms as Muger de buen fregado ‘pretty woman’: “because of the dishonest ones who rub everyone”. The words related to each other are also complemented by others of different lineage, such as in this case platerilla ‘little plate, saucer’, plato ‘plate’, escudilla ‘bowl’, aparador ‘dresser’ vagy espeto ‘plate-rack’.

Admittedly, a large number of words appear in our modern dictionaries only by the authority granted to them by Covarrubias, such as bobillo, “a pot-bellied jug with a pot-like handle”, which was taken over by the dictionary of the Academy and on whose existence I had doubts until I found it in a seventeenth-century inventory of Avila; or brizar ‘rocking a cradle’, that can still be heard in León; or the word brújula ‘compass’ in the meaning ‘point of view’, which is today marked as obsolete by the dictionary, but which helps to explain the path of the Italian bussola ‘little box’ to become the Spanish brújula ‘compass’; or the “game of abejón” ‘bumble-bee’, or the use of aburrir ‘to bore’ in the sense of aborrecer ‘to hate’, or azacán ‘winebag’ which, curiously, used to mean ‘peasant of the Pyrenees’.

On the other hand, the work is admirably useful to better understand the vocabulary of ancient Spanish literature, even if its consultation is not without problems, because, as we have seen, it embraces whole families of words in one article, and because we cannot be sure where to find what we are curious of, not to mention that certain words fall to places absolutely different from where they should stay in the alphabet. But these problems (which are by the way perfectly resolved by the electronic edition of the dictionary) should not affect the reader who gives up rushing, and begins instead to read the Tesoro with the passion that great works deserve. By doing so, he will find a thousand stories, including some quite fabulous ones, will have a glimpse into Latin literature, will be overpowered by adages, and will come across several disappeared words which were used by our classics, such as the above mentioned platerillas which I also knew only from a passage of Picara Justina, where someone, referring to a young man, says that “he was throwing stones onto some innocent platerillas”.

Not everything in life has to be considered from the point of view of short-term emergency. Even in the case of dictionaries we have to reserve ourselves such pleasures as diving into the roots whence words spring and which give explanation to their meaning. This is the area that mainly interests the reader of Tesoro de la lengua española, especially when merging in such never ending articles as abeja ‘bee’ or buey ‘ox’, which are full of hints to understand how our ancestors – mainly the authors of literary works – organized the world of things. Or in such cases as the cocodrilo, where we seem to have stepped over into a picturesque encyclopedia in which we find everyting from the curious and untenable etymology from Latin crocus ‘saffron’ through a detailed presentation of the life of the animal to its symbolic use. These data can be curious to us, but without them we could not understand the fantastic, but at the same time very realistic ideas of things in the minds of Covarrubias’ contemporaries, such as the eggplant which causes melancholy, or the ring-cake which is “a bread mixed with benevolent magic medicines”. Nevertheless, we have to caution the prospective readers of this dictionary from taking seriously its surprising etymologies, many of which belong to the world of fantasy. To illustrate this, I do not have to recur to his Hebrew or Arabic etymons: the Spanish ones will do that, such as abarca ‘wooden shoe’ which “was named after its shape similar to a barca ‘boat’”, or cetrería ‘falconry’ “which comes from cetro ‘scepter’”.

Covarrubias’ manuscript Suplemento to the Tesoro, now published for the first time together with the printed and electronic edition of the Tesoro

These were only two aspects to highlight the importance of this work, whose fourth centenary we celebrate this year. I would like to add that its reading is not only a delicacy reserved for the taste of the philologist, but a fine feast for all refined readers, such as Luisa Alday, a character in the latest novel by Javier Marías, Los enamoramientos, who recurs to this “bulky green book”, that is to the dictionary of Covarrubias when she wants to explain the concept of envidia ‘envy’. According to the lexicographer, this is a poison which “is often engendered in the hearts of those whom we consider our friends and as such, we trust in them”.

With this monument of lexicography we also have the luck of having excellent modern editions, which are not only accessible, but also deserve a praise from the philological and technical point of view. I mean the edition by Martín de Riquer [1943] which was in use for a long time among philologists, and now the latest one by Ignacio Arellano and Rafael Zafra [2006], which can be considered the definitive edition and also has a companion DVD which greatly facilitates the access to the work.

Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española según la impresión de 1611, con las adiciones del Padre Benito Remigio Noydens, publicada en Madrid, 1674. Sebastián de Covarrubias. Edited by Martín de Riquer. Barcelona: SA. Horta, 1943. Alta Fulla Editorial. Barcelona, 2003 (a reprint of the edition by M. de Riquer). 1120 pp. 60 euro • Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco. Complete and illustrated edition by Ignacio Arellano and Rafael Zafra (reprint of the edition of 2006). Iberoamericana. Madrid/Frankfurt, 2009. 1639 pp + DVD. 120 euro – the DVD alone 45 euro

4 comentarios:

languagehat dijo...

Fascinating! A correction: "certain voices" should be "certain words."

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you as always!

Effe dijo...

well done!
Congratulations to Rio Wang's people.

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks a lot! although the bulk of the respect is due to Rafael Zafra, the infatigable editor-in-chief of the critical edition – and of course to the genius of Don Covarrubias!