Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages.
“My grandpa had one of those” is a phrase that’s been said to me more than a few times in my life. This is because, since the day I found a pile of handkerchiefs that my grandmother had gifted to my father on the shelf of mate-less socks in our laundry room, I have carried a handkerchief.
I grabbed that first one because I blow or wipe my nose dozens of times a day and Kleenex fall apart and get trapped in pockets and make a mess of things. Imagine how many times you touch your face when you’re really sick; I’m pretty sure I double that on a normal day. I have wicked allergy problems the likes of which most people can not begin to comprehend.
On the plus side, as so many of my friends and boyfriends and coworkers have pointed out over the years, I am one step closer to being an old man (which is kind of my dream*), so I totally don’t mind.
EN → handkerchief — a square of cotton or other finely woven material, typically carried in one’s pocket and intended for blowing or wiping one’s nose. ORIGIN Hand + kerchief [a piece of fabric], from Old French cuevrechief [couvrir ‘to cover’ + chief ‘head’].
ES → pañuelo — Pedazo de tela pequeño, generalmente cuadrado, que sirve para limpiarse la nariz o el sudor y para otras cosas. [Small piece of cloth, generally square, which serves to wipe one’s nose or sweat and for other things.] ORIGIN diminutive of paño from Latin pannus [cloth].
FR → mouchoir — Petite pièce de tissu fin ou de papier, généralement carrée, dont on se sert pour se moucher ou s’essuyer. [Small piece of cloth or paper, generally square, which is used to blow one’s nose into or wipe.] ORIGIN Latin muccare [mucus].
Tough to pick a winner today as all three are weird in their own ways. As has happened before, two languages have different Latin roots and the third takes a word from one of the previous two. Interesting too that all three specify a square shape when I wouldn’t have cited that as a necessary characteristic. Maybe I’ll give it to English since I’d never actually thought of the connection between “chief” and “chef.” In retrospect, it’s obvious that they’re derived from the same word but I would have guessed that “chief” was some kind of anglicization of a Native American word.
* The only thing standing in my way is being a girl, but I grew up in America where we were told we could be anything we wanted when we grew up so I’m still holding out hope.