So during my wanderings on IMDB, I came across the movie Desperado (which Aaron happens to own, and I’ve seen once and enjoyed). I had no idea was part of a trilogy including El Mariachi and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. ApparentlyDesperado is the middle of the trilogy, which makes me want to see the other two for context.

Anyway, so I was looking at the word desperado, and I realized that it’s one of those strange words that seem to have migrated from Spanish to English in slightly altered way. The word in Spanish is a participle, desesperado, meaning “desperate” or “hopeless.” In English, desperado is a noun “a bold, reckless criminal or outlaw, especially in the early days of the American West.” (dictionary.com).

Side note: For those who haven’t had a grammar lesson in awhile, a participle is basically an adjective based on a verb (referring to a participation in the action or state of the verb), or a verb used as an adjective. Here, desesperado is the participle of desesparar – “to despair.”

Desesperar in Spanish is clearly made up of the prefix des, which indicates negation, and the verb esperar, meaning “to hope.” Literally “to have no hope.” It was the connection between desperate and hopeless that caught my attention.

I never connected the English words desperate and hopeless, but in Spanish, the words are the one and the same. Somehow in the weird mixed pot of English linguistic history, we got the word despair from a Latin-based language. The words to an English-speaker are somewhat similar, but there are some semantic distinctions. The relation between them is not clearly apparent because they came from different language sources.

After some digging, I discovered that desperate is a Middle English word from 1350–1400 AD and hope comes from an Old English word hopa from before 900 AD. Desperate came to us directly from Latin: déspérātus, the participle of déspérāre – “to despair.”

There are plenty of examples where English has two closely related words that are still distinct. Often (as in this example) one of the words is of Old English or Germanic origin, while the other is of Latin origin (either directly from Latin, or borrowed through French). The Old English words tend to have a more earthy or everyday sort of feel, while the Latin-based words tend to be more lofty or refined.

That happened because after the Norman invasion of England (1066 AD), the peasants all still spoke English, and the nobles were either native French speakers, or were educated in French. And of course Latin was the language of religion at the time, so anything of a religious or spiritual nature was likely to be referred to in Latin.

Did I have a point to all this? Not really. This was pretty much just my train of thought this morning as I was driving to work, and once I had access to some online resources, I was able to satisfy some curiosity.

I do kind of wonder though – did English-speakers get ripped off on this, not having a clear connection between desperate and hopeless, or did we get the better end of the deal – two words that while related are also distinct?

Language is SO freaking interesting!

P.S. You have no idea how long it has taken me to put this post together during slow moments at work. Surely I would have many more brilliant things to say if I wasn’t interrupted by the mundane so often….