History of Spanish language

Metathesis: Murciégalo, cocreta y cocodrilo. Are they actually mistaken words?

When children whose mother tongue is Spanish begin to speak, it is standard for them to make mistakes such as saying murciégalo instead of murciélago (bat) or cocreta instead of croqueta (croquette). Does that sound familiar to you? These errors called metatheses, correspond to when the sound changes places within a word. But what if I told you that those children are not wrong? Does it take you by surprise? For sure, yes.

Let’s look at the example of a murciégalo. In the current dictionary, this word appears to be a variant of murciélago, although it is perceived as vulgar. However, the original term is precisely murciégalo, as it derives from the Latin voices mus, muris (mouse) and caecúlus, a diminutive of caecus (blind). In this case, the original metathesis, murciélago, has been documented since the 13th century and soon passed into the cultured language. The first academic dictionary included, already in 1734, the two variants. But this is not the only case.

Many Spanish words owe their current form to the phenomenon of metathesis. Another representative case is cocodrilo, which is corrupted by crocodrilo (another classic “mistake” children make). It resembles the English word crocodile, and, as in the case of murciégalo, the etymological term that ended up being lost due to a metathesis. The original Latin word was crocodilus, derived from the Greek krokódeilos, from króke (pebble) and drilos (worm). It must be said that in this case, metathesis was already used in medieval Latin, where reference was made to crocodillus.

Peligro is another word that has undergone a change in the order of its sounds and the acceptance of this. Peligro (danger) comes from the Latin pericùlum. This voice should have evolved into periglo, a variant that was documented until the 16th century. Something similar happened with milagro (miracle); This word comes from miraglo. Other cases are guirnalda (garland), whose word was initially guirlanda, or Algeria, which, like in English, was initially said Algeria.

In popular speech, metathesis has given rise to words such as dentrífico, mistakenly used instead of dentífrico, from the Latin denifrícum, which in turn derives from the Latin words dens, dentis (tooth) and fricare (rub).

When the error of the error is the right thing

If we think about it, many of today’s metatheses children make are the original voices derived from Latin. That is, the original voice will probably be returned if, as happened previously, the vulgar voice or error is accepted as part of educated speech.

The error of the error seems to be the return to the etymological origin of these words. A journey of several centuries to return to the same place, but with a very interesting route, don’t you think?

So, if you have children, and they say crocodilo or murciégalo, remember that they are not completely wrong and that they are the ones who are closest to the origin of the word in Latin. Most likely they will not be able to refer to the etymological origin of the word, thanks to what you just learned today, perhaps you can do it.

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